The issue of bail reform is a hot topic. And it promises to be for many years to come as legal battles are being waged in individual states throughout the U.S. all the way up to the Supreme Court. From California to Texas, Connecticut to Maryland, the issue of bail reform has continuously been debated, voted on, and in some cases implemented. The results, we’re finding, have been quite mixed.
The Point of Bail Reform
Proponents argue that bail reform is necessary because the current money bail system affects the poor more than those with the savings to pay their bail directly, without the services of a bail bondsman. Understanding that the point of the bail system itself is to guarantee the appearance of the accused/defendant in court for the crime(s) or misdemeanor(s) with which they have been charged is an important first step to understanding the bail reform debate.
Bail is not punitive. It is not intended to keep people in jail. In Maryland, judges are given great latitude in determining bail amounts, but are always supposed to adhere to the notion that bail should not be set at a point that would be considered too high or onerous to the accused. With that point in mind, one must first wonder if the problem with bail is one of implementation rather than one of policy. If, for example, an undue number of people are left to wait in jail for their court dates because the amount of their bail is too high, perhaps the guidelines and latitude judges rely upon is being incorrectly applied. But this is merely a mental exercise. For those who only care about results, the thing that will truly matter are the numbers. And for reform advocates, those don’t look good.
More People in Jail Than Ever
In Maryland, bail reform was supposed to result in fewer people left waiting in jail solely because they cannot afford bail. What, then, do the numbers tell us? An article from WBAL TV is enlightening:
The number of arrests year-to-date in Baltimore City is down, but the average daily population at Central Booking is up considerably. In March 2017, an average of 655 arrestees were held each day at Central Booking. In March 2018, the average jumped to 856 per day, an increase of 23 percent. State corrections officials said one reason for the big jump is that more people are being held without bail pending trial.
It is typically the case that those held without bail are the most violent suspects, who by extension are assumed to pose the greatest flight risk and greatest public safety risk. In practice, many charged with mere misdemeanors are being held without bail.
Taking Away Choice and Options
What this amounts to, in Maryland at least, is the removal of a viable option for those accused and awaiting trial. For those who are being held without bail who are not a flight risk and not violent suspects, Maryland bail reform represents the erosion of freedom and choice. For the poor who cannot afford bail or the services of a bail bond company, the result after bail reform appears to be precisely the same, i.e. – they await their trials in jail. In the process, they may lose their jobs, have cars repossessed, family members suffering without their support, and face a whole host of other problems. It is a real problem, and this is at the heart of the debate.
However, for those who can afford bail or a bail bond, or have family or friends who can help them out, being held without bail for what amounts to a relatively minor offense is problematic. It is certainly not the intended result of the Maryland court that approved bail reform, nor is it good for those sitting in jails, or the bail bonds industry that could be serving them better were it not for the new laws.
Where Does Bail Reform in Maryland Go From Here?
That’s hard to say. One thing that is fairly certain is that the status quo will not remain. On one side, both bail agents and the insurance companies that underwrite the risk want a return to the days when bail was an option for more people being unnecessarily held in jails. At the same time, proponents of civil liberties want the same thing, but for drastically different reasons. To say that this is an odd situation is an understatement, but it’s too big an issue to go unnoticed, so it’s a safe bet that it will have some influence in state and local elections going forward, and that the vocal arguments on both sides of the issue will continue to be heard.