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Prosecutors, public defender back bail-reform rule

Recent data prompts prosecutors' change of heart

The large amount of police body camera footage is 'remarkable,' Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger says, and it has multiplied as more officers receive cameras so there is more footage for each arrest.

‘The sky has not fallen,’ Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger told lawmakers in Annapolis on Tuesday about the impact of the state’s new bail-reform rule. (File photo)

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s local lead prosecutors and the state’s chief public defender voiced strong support Tuesday for a six-month old rule designed to prevent judicial officers from imposing bail on defendants beyond their financial means, with the prosecution praising an increase in those held without bond and the defense lauding a rise in the percentage of those released on their own recognizance before trial.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said he did not expect to be commending the Maryland Judiciary’s rule when it went into effect July 1, believing then that their concern about wrongly jailing the indigent would spur district court commissioners and judges to erroneously release defendants who pose a public-safety threat or a risk of not showing up for trial. Shellenberger, who was representing the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, said he was wrong to think the sky was going to fall because of the rule.

“The sky has not fallen,” he told the House Judiciary Committee.

Rather, judicial officers are properly holding without bail defendants accused of violent crimes who, prior to the rule, would have been assessed exorbitant bail amounts the commissioners and judges themselves knew they could not afford but felt obliged to offer, Shellenberger said.

“We are starting to hold the right people and we are starting to release the right people,” he added.

Shellenberger expressed cautious optimism that data showing no change in the number of released individuals failing to show up for trial in the rule’s first six months would hold steady. Before the rule’s enactment, the prosecutor was concerned defendants released without posting bond would no “skin in the game” to show up for trial.

Current data “has not borne out my concern,” Shellenberger told the committee, adding he awaits the data for the first 12 months.

Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe, an early supporter of the rule, said the Maryland Judiciary’s six-month statistics reveal signs of “a cultural shift” in attitude regarding money bail, which he has criticized as the unconstitutional jailing of individuals before trial because they are too poor to pay. The rule has resulted in a “dramatic decline in money bail” and the bonds, when imposed, are “significantly lower and generally within reach” of indigent defendants, DeWolfe told the Judiciary Committee.

Shellenberger and DeWolfe’s comments came in response to Maryland Judiciary data showing that nearly 60 percent of criminal defendants are being released on their own recognizance, perhaps with a pledge to attend pretrial services or with an unsecured bond, a promise to pay if they fail to attend trial. The data also show that the number of arrestees held without bond has increased to about 20 percent under the new rule.

Maryland District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey said the rise in those held without bond was largely attributable to judicial officers opting to jail defendants instead of assessing bail they knew the violent offenders could not afford. This past practice, also cited by Shellenberger, resulted from what Morrissey called “a million dollars’ worth of nerves” on the part of judicial officers fearful of releasing a defendant they suspected was a continuing threat to public safety.

“The people with the highest risk are being preventatively detained prior to trial” under the rule, Morrissey told the Judiciary Committee.

The judicial officers’ confidence in releasing defendants without bail is enhanced when pretrial services are available, such as drug rehabilitation and mental-health treatment, Morrissey said.

Being able to order a released defendant to pretrial services gives judicial officers “alternatives other than ‘no bond,’” Morrissey said.

“Robust” pretrial services involve “not just monitoring” the defendants but “matching those individuals with the services they need,” he added.

Ten counties and Baltimore city provide pretrial services, and at least five more are looking into offering such programs.


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