A statewide effort to set affordable bail rates has taken away any middle ground when it comes to pretrial release, some legal professionals say, but has meant an increase in the number of inmates held without bail after being charged.
The percentage of people held without bail has increased since October, when Attorney General Brian Frosh wrote a letter calling for District Court commissioners and judges to consider a defendant’s ability to pay bail, according to the most recently available data from the District Court of Maryland. Likewise, the percentage of people released on personal recognizance and unsecured bond has also increased.
Across the state, the number of people held without bail increased from 10 percent to 14 percent after the October letter and subsequent directives from the courts.
The percent of people released on personal recognizance and unsecured bond increased from 48 to 54 percent.
In Frederick County, the rate of defendants held without bail increased from nearly 7 percent to 13 percent, while those released with no secured bail increased slightly from 60 to 61 percent.
Frosh’s letter aimed to keep poor people from being stuck in jail just because they couldn’t afford bail.
The Court of Appeals subsequently adopted rule changes that direct court officers to set the “least onerous” bail conditions.
“We had a feeling that what would happen would be that more people would be held, and more people would be released because they’re not giving the judge much leeway in terms of setting bond,” Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith said. “It really had narrowed the discretion that judges are able to use ... We’d like to see more discretion to the middle ground.”
Bail bondsmen and victim’s rights advocates have expressed concerns that more defendants will fail to appear in court without a steep monetary incentive hanging over their heads.
Smith said it’s too early to tell if there has been an increase in failures to appear since the rule change, but his suspicion is that there will be.
Frederick County District Public Defender, Mary S. Riley, said she had noticed a change in the wake of the drive to make bail more affordable.
“There are more people that are being released now, and I think that is a good thing,” she said, adding that if a client couldn’t afford a $200 bail now, they wouldn’t be stuck behind bars.
On the other hand, she’s seen some misdemeanors and defendants in traffic cases who would have been released before the rule change who have now been held without bail.
“I think sometimes that there are circumstances that these people should be getting a bond and they’re not,” she said.
Frederick County District Court Judge O. John Cejka said the Constitution has always required commissioners and judges to set bail at the “least onerous” conditions.
“I think that all the judges practice that requirement,” he said.
Cejka said the changes don’t affect him when he hears bail reviews. They simply emphasize looking at nonviolent offenders as eligible for release unless other factors determine they may be a flight risk or a danger to the public. The Constitution instructs judges to do that anyway, he added.
When asked why there might be a sudden decrease in the number of people held on bail starting in November, he said that the Attorney General’s letter and Court of Appeals rule change brought the issue to a head.