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Bail industry gives big to state lawmakers ahead of reform effort

Rachel Baye

Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin and Prince George’s County Del. Joseph Vallario lead the powerful judiciary committees in the Senate and House, respectively.

They also received more campaign contributions from the bail bonds industry than any other Maryland lawmakers since 2011, according to a report released Wednesday by Common Cause Maryland, which advocates for campaign finance reform and transparency in government. In fact, the report says, they received more money from the industry than nearly all other state-level candidates in the country.

“It made us ask the question, how do these special interests use their influence to try to drive policy change in Annapolis?” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the group’s executive director.

Zirkin said the more than $78,000 the industry has given his campaign hasn’t swayed him.

“I’m for reforming the bail system,” he said. “I think if you know the system, it would be foolish to say that it doesn’t need reform.”

And Zirkin and Vallario weren’t the only recipients of the industry’s cash. Last year alone, donations topped $87,000, including a combined $17,000 to Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.

"It was interesting to see how much the donations increased over the last two years as the question of reform has gotten to be much more contentious and much more prevalent in Annapolis,” Bevan-Dangel said.

As contentious as the issue has been in past General Assembly sessions, legislators predict that this year they will pass changes to the system.

Attorney General Brian Frosh has helped push reform forward, saying the current system may be unconstitutional because it disadvantages people who can’t afford bail.

“Poor people end up spending time in jail simply because they’re poor,” he said at a Baltimore City House Delegation meeting last week.

Frosh asked the Court of Appeals to consider a rules change preventing judges from setting high bail amounts for defendants who aren’t dangerous or a flight risk. The court is expected to issue a decision on the rule next month.

In the meantime, legislators are expected to introduce a range of bills on the topic.

"My bill basically would say that if a person is charged with a misdemeanor — that is a crime that is punishable by less than 18 months in jail and does not include the use of a gun or domestic violence — then that person shall be released on his own recognizance or under the supervision of pre-trial release,” said Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of the Baltimore House Delegation. “Basically saying that for those minor crimes a judge does not even have the option to set a bail.”

A number of proposals would use pre-trial services instead of bail for some defendants. These programs evaluate defendants and recommend bail alternatives. That could mean a mandatory weekly phone call and random monthly drug tests, or house arrest.

More than half of Maryland’s local jurisdictions have some pre-trial services, but some would need to add them. Even some existing programs would need to be expanded to accommodate the proposals.

For example, Montgomery County Del. David Moon proposes eliminating cash bail entirely, a concept backed by the state Office of the Public Defender.

Fellow Montgomery County Del. Kathleen Dumais said that’s a step too far.

“I think that there are probably times cash bail is appropriate,” said Dumais, the vice-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “In a perfect world, yes, I'd love to see no cash bail.”

She plans to be one of the sponsors of a bill that echoes the changes the Court of Appeals could make.

Vallario, the House Judiciary chairman who received $45,000 from the bail bonds industry, said he is OK with some change but is skeptical about any plan that takes decision-making away from the judge.

"Proceed with caution,” he said. “I don't think the judges want to be told what to do. They know what to do. Do the right thing. That's what I would like to see happen." 

Rachel Baye is a reporter for WYPR's newsroom.
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