Michael R. Merican: Take it from law enforcement, pretrial services work

Michael R. Merican//April 5, 2018

Michael R. Merican: Take it from law enforcement, pretrial services work

By Commentary:

//Michael R. Merican

//April 5, 2018

Major Michael R. Merican
Major Michael R. Merican

In my 34 years working in law enforcement, including more than a decade overseeing a jail, I’ve learned a bit about what works in the criminal justice system and what doesn’t. I’ve learned that the cash bail system is expensive and doesn’t ensure public safety. On the other hand, I’ve learned that a comprehensive pretrial services program, like the one we have in St. Mary’s County, is cost-effective, safe, and helps rehabilitate offenders instead of perpetuating a cycle of criminal activity and incarceration.

When I took over as warden of the St. Mary’s County Jail more than 10 years ago, we were under-staffed and over capacity, our jail cells often filled with people awaiting trial. These people were legally presumed innocent, but because they couldn’t afford bail, they waited in jail for trials that often resulted in dismissed charges or sentences of “time served.” In the meantime, some lost jobs, housing, custody of children, and were released in a worse situation than when they entered. There had to be another way.

In 2014, I served on the Governor’s Commission to Reform Maryland’s Pretrial System and learned how risk assessment tools and comprehensive pretrial services allowed jails to hold those who presented a genuine public safety risk — no matter how much money they had — while providing services so that others could be safely released to resume their lives while they awaited trial.

With my staff, I developed a pretrial release program based out of the jail, one that local judges and the state’s attorney eagerly approved. We adapted a risk assessment tool that was already being used in Montgomery County. Defendants determined to be a public safety risk were held, while those we determined were not a risk were released to the community and assigned case managers who helped them obtain ID, enroll in health insurance, connect to community-based services like workforce development or drug treatment, monitored compliance with release conditions and provided court date reminders.

The results were dramatic.

During the first year of implementation, 99 percent of participants appeared for all court appearances, shattering the myth that without cash bail, defendants will flee. These defendants also had better outcomes at trial, with 70 percent serving no time and 91 percent serving less than a year. Studies suggest that defendants released before trial are able to mount better defenses and that the services offered during pretrial release help judges see the power of rehabilitation.

The new program also drastically reduced overcrowding, maintained public safety and generated substantial savings. The comprehensive pretrial services cost $29.63 per person per day, compared to the $148.85 per day it costs to incarcerate a person. In its first year, the program saved St. Mary’s County almost $400,000. This figure includes the immediate savings from supervising people in the community. It does not take into account indirect savings resulting from the reduced sentence lengths mentioned above.

In recent months, reports released by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, the NAACP, and the Office of the Public Defender have confirmed that the statewide judicial rule change implemented last July has successfully reduced the number of people held before trial without an increased threat to public safety. And right now, lawmakers in Annapolis are discussing whether to fund statewide pretrial services to allow the rule change to achieve its maximum benefit.

The 8th Amendment concerning bail was attached to the Bill of Rights in 1791. Technology and evidence-based practices have evolved over the past 200 years in every way imaginable and so should America’s bail system. Our experience in St. Mary’s County shows that the costs will be repaid many times over, not only in dollars saved but in offenders rehabilitated, families held together, and increased public safety.

Major Michael R. Merican is assistant sheriff of St. Mary’s County.




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