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Md. legislators seek $10M for pretrial services

Md. legislators seek $10M for pretrial services

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Del. Erek Barron, D-Prince George's, is among those lawmakers urging more funds for pretrial service programs. (File Photo)
Del. Erek Barron, D-Prince George’s, is among those lawmakers urging more funds for pretrial service programs. (File Photo)

ANNAPOLIS – Legislators opposed to cash bail Thursday said they seek $10 million next fiscal year for pretrial service programs as courts move away from bail in favor of the monitored release before trial of defendants who do not pose a risk to public safety.

The $10 million would be an order of magnitude greater than the $1 million provided this fiscal year to the Pretrial Services Program Grant Fund. Created by the General Assembly in 2018, the fund provides alternatives to jail for alleged nonviolent offenders who could benefit more from drug and mental health treatment programs than from incarceration before trial. The $1 million was eventually spread among 11 counties through the grant program.

Del. Erek L. Barron, D-Prince George’s and chief House sponsor of the grant fund law, said the $10 million infusion would help provide a “fairer justice system” by funding pre-trial alternatives to jail for defendants too poor to pay bail. Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore City, said a “robust” pretrial services program is necessary to assist indigent nonviolent defendants.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan said he is expected to earmark funding similar to last year’s $1 million for pretrial services. Amelia Chasse added the legislature can increase that figure by voting to dedicate a greater share of Hogan’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget to the fund.

Hogan is scheduled to submit his proposal to the General Assembly on Friday. The fiscal year begins July 1.

Under longstanding practice, judicial officers order defendants to be held before trial if their release would present a threat to public safety or if they are likely to flee to avoid trial. Bail has historically been imposed as a deterrent against flight.

In 2017, the Maryland Judiciary adopted a rule to prevent judicial officers from imposing bail on criminal defendants beyond their financial means. Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh had criticized the practice as a likely violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of due process and prohibition on excessive penalties.

Under the rule, bail remains an option but judicial officers’ “preference” should be to impose non-monetary conditions for ensuring that a defendant shows up for trial, such as the potential use of ankle bracelets with homing devices or requiring the defendant to check in frequently with a court officer.

Advocates of pretrial service programs said defendants should receive court or governmental assistance in ensuring they do not miss their trial dates, such as text-message reminders, transportation assistance and child care. Defendants should also be referred for mental health and drug treatment and be supervised by case managers who make in-person visits.

Pretrial services involve “the outside-the-box thinking we need,” Del. Kathleen M. Dumais said. “But we also have to fund it.”

Dumais, D-Montgomery, said she welcomed the emerging practice of courts sending text messages to defendants, adding that she routine calls clients in her family law practice to remind them when they are due in court.

“Clients’ lives do not revolve around their court dates,” said Dumais, the House majority leader.

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