A few weeks back we wrote about concerns that were being raised over Maryland’s bail system. Legislators had been made aware of a constitutional problem about how judges determine bail amounts, and about defendants’ ability to pay them. Now, the issue has gone from a talking point to what may be a rule change on the issue.
The Problem With Bail Determinations
The problem is that in many cases courts were determining that defendants were entitled to bail, and setting bail amounts. However, courts were not considering a defendant’s ability to pay the bail amount. A “small” bail of $1,000 may be a large bail if that defendant is homeless.
So, a defendant who may be entitled to a smaller bail may end up staying in jail simply because he or she can not afford the bail amount.
This is unconstitutional, as it is essentially denying someone his or her freedom while he or she is presumed innocent simply based on inability to pay.
Assembly Suggests Rule Changes
Thus, legislators had begun requesting that courts take defendants’ financial situations into account, after Maryland’s attorney general brought the matter to their attention in a letter.
Now, a legislative judicial rules committee has proposed a formal rule change to address the issue. The rule change would completely alter the state’s existing cash bail system. Before being passed, the proposed changes will be open for public comment, and then will have to be approved by Maryland’s highest court.
Already, after the state’s Attorney General brought the issue up in his letter, a district court chief judge had suggested that judges impose the “least onerous” bail requirements for this very reason. Many defendants have been afforded the ability to make bail as a result.
Change is Controversial
Not everyone agrees with the proposed changes. Many feel that lowering bail amounts will lead to more defendants failing to appear for trial. Instead, they suggest that someone should challenge the measure in a test case that is brought before a Maryland court.
None of this changes the fact that the issue has gone from merely a letter from the Attorney General to more of a movement to enact real reform. Advocates note that defendants who are a risk of flight will be denied bail, or levied large bail amounts, just as they always have. Accounting for a defendant’s financial situation does not alter that fact, or provide reduced bail for people who do not have the legal right to be free before trial anyway.
Attempts to change the bail laws in the General Assembly have also failed in the past, and many see the proposed rule change, which doesn not require legislative approval, as an end run around the Assembly.
Even if the rule passes, the Assembly could still negate the change by passing a law in the future. So in the end the Assembly likely will have the last word anyway.
The laws in the criminal justice system are always changing. If you are arrested or charged with a crime, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your case.