The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a safeguard against excessive punishment. It reads, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

In Frederick County and around Maryland, people who present no threat to public safety sit in jail awaiting a trial to establish their guilt, or in some cases, their innocence. They sit in jail at substantial cost to the taxpayer instead of working or caring for their family and paying taxes.

According to the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform, for a single pretrial detainee the cost can range from $83 to $153 per day. The Governor’s Commission to Reform Maryland’s Pretrial System 2014 Report showed that in Frederick County more than half of those arrested are held in pretrial detention — with the majority being held for over 90 days.

Of course, some arrestees represent a danger to our community and the case against them is strong, making them “high risk.” We want to keep them in jail before trial and after their conviction until their sentence is served. In Frederick County, however, there is no systematic assessment to determine who is high risk and who is not.

Those not deemed high risk are not likely to reoffend prior to trial, are likely to appear in court when required to do so and are deemed low risk. The low-risk detainee may remain in jail because he cannot afford bail while someone who presents a greater risk but can afford bail may be released. The current system of bail has a disparate impact on the poor and lower-income populations.

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s November 2016 report, “How Maryland’s Reliance on Money Bail Jails the Poor and Costs the Community Millions,” said that whether people have the money for bail is a key determinate in making them subject to pretrial detention.

The report further states that from 2011 to 2015, $256 million in nonrefundable charges was paid to bail bondsmen, $75 million of which was paid in cases where subjects were not found guilty of a crime.

These secured money bonds are reportedly no more effective in guaranteeing a defendant’s appearance in court than unsecured release.

Often the money paid for bail comes from those who can least afford it. It can have an adverse impact on both the immediate and extended family. It is often necessary for the accused to have to borrow money from family members in order to make bail. Those who can’t make bail remain incarcerated and risk losing their jobs and their families become dependent on their extended family, friends and social services at taxpayers’ expense.

Money saved through reforms that reduce jail populations can be used to expand drug treatment and prevention programs. This could have a positive impact on the heroin epidemic that continues to plague our community.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh as well as the American Bar Association have recognized the shortcomings of the current system of pretrial detention. It is seen as discriminatory, unfairly affecting the poor and minority population.

Our state Legislature has an opportunity to improve the system of pretrial release in this session by supporting the 2017 Maryland Pretrial Justice Reinvestment Act.

As more attention is being focused on criminal justice reforms, reforming our system of bail and pretrial detention should be a priority. It will introduce a measure of economic fairness to the system while providing an opportunity to better utilize taxpayers’ crime-fighting dollars.

Karl Bickel is retired from the Department of Justice and has been a city police officer, assistant professor and second in command of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office. He writes from Monrovia. He can be reached at

(5) comments

Boyce Rensberger

This is an excellent column addressing a real problem in our criminal justice system. And, though critics may miss it, the rationale is based on a part of the U.S. Constitution that has been ignored far too long. The Eighth Amendment is just as valid as the Second.


Thank you, Karl. A very well written and comprehensive column.


So, all of a sudden, the monetary bail system is flawed and in need of reform? After all these years? I think not.

The problem with this so called reform "movement" is that the judiciary has always had the statutory option and ability to release arrestees on their "own recognizance" (OR) for decades. OR doesn't require legislative intervention nor the unnecessary acquisition and funding of law enforcement and judicial administrative personnel. Magistrates simply need to be encouraged to use the tools already at their disposal.
The other significant flaw in the logic is the presumption that the problem is legislative rather than socio-political. (It is not.) The only thing it accomplishes are optics. Politicians are simply pandering to and exploiting the poor while further eroding our individual rights.
In doing so, politicians are destroying a self-sustaining privatized industry (bail bond agencies) to shift control into yet another layer of governmental bureaucracy while conveniently ignoring the tools the judiciary already has at its disposal.
The poor will gain no value from this contrived movement. Instead, politicians are manipulating this contrived "movement" to buy the votes necessary to solidify their power base. It's the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.


gmbtn-Progress is never made if our belief is that we should continue to do something because it has always been done that way. Times change, conditions change and needs change. I agree that the judiciary has always had the ability to act on this and some judges have, on an individual and inconsistent basis. The reform proposed provides a tool to assess the risk of releasing someone on an unsecured bail. Currently there is no systematic method of assessing the risk that ensures fairness and consistency and safety to the community.
It is not the job of politicians to ensure the sustainability of the bail bond industry. Keep in mind, this will mostly impact those unable to make bond and securing the services of a bail bondsman.
The poor and the tax paying public will benefit by permitting those deemed low risk to be able to continue working and paying taxes rather than sitting in jail at tax payer expense.


"The poor will gain no value from this contrived movement."


It seems that not paying money to a bail bondsman has value equal at least to the money not paid.

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