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Best Week, Worst Week, Annapolis Edition: Bail reform advocates celebrate; Medical marijuana supporters suffer last-minute setback

bestworst-041517Maryland Del. Erek L. Barron and advocates of bail reform had reason to celebrate this week at the close of the Maryland General Assembly’s 2071 session while state Sen. Joan Carter Conway and medical marijuana supporters suffered a crushing, last-minute defeat.

Legal affairs writer Steve Lash reported Thursday that bail reform proponents got their wish as a Maryland Judiciary rule will go into effect July 1 calling on district court commissioners and judges to prefer alternatives to bail when imposing conditions of release on defendants to ensure their appearance at trial.

The rule was spurred by concerns that a system tying release from custody to a financial payment denies due process to presumed-innocent defendants who lack the funds to pay. Supporters of the system countered that judicial officers must have discretion to assess bail if they believe it to be the most appropriate way to ensure trial attendance.

In the end, Senate Bill 983 died in the House Judiciary Committee, chaired, ironically, by Prince George’s Democrat Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a leading advocate of the bail system.

Vallario has conceded defeat – at least for now. He said he plans to hold hearings this fall on the Judiciary’s rule and how effectively it has protected defendants’ due-process rights while ensuring  they show  up for trial.

Barron, D-Prince George’s, who helped lead the fight against SB 983, said the Judiciary took the responsibility and went through a very long and thoughtful rulemaking process and came up with a very comprehensive decisional framework to ensure that pretrial decisions are made in a constitutional manner and fairly.

Maryland Attorney Brian E. Frosh set the Judiciary’s rulemaking process in motion last fall with a letter to legislators saying that judicial officers likely violate the constitutional rights of indigent defendants in assessing unaffordable bail. Frosh, in a statement this week, hailed the defeat of SB 983.

Meanwhile, an effort to reform the state’s fledgling medical cannabis laws to simultaneously allow minority-owned growers and end two lawsuits failed in the final moments of the session.

Business writer Bryan P. Sears reported in the early hours of Tuesday morning that the House of Delegates had taken the vote but before it could be officially recorded the clock struck midnight and session ended. The tight timing at one point led observers and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. to initially believe the bill passed, prompting said Conway, D-Baltimore City and chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, to say, “It breaks my heart.”

Conway had been critical of the current law, which resulted in 15 licenses being awarded with none to minority-owned businesses. Additionally, two applicants who ranked highly were bumped because of concerns about geographic diversity.

Then on Wednesday, Sears reported that members of the General Assembly’s Legislative Black Caucus called on Gov. Larry Hogan, House  Speaker Michael  Bush and Miller to convene a special session to address minority business disparities in the state’s medical marijuana program.

It is not yet clear if a special session is in the cards. Bush and Miller say they support returning to Annapolis and Hogan is leaving it for the legislative leaders.

Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore City and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, and Conway called the death of the bill a deliberate act. Glenn even went so far as to say she had never been so angry or disappointed in the legislature in her three years of service, calling the voting process “orchestrated.” Conway said a special session could resolve the issue in short order.