Maryland's Highest Court Approves Bail Reform Rule Changes - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Maryland's Highest Court Approves Bail Reform Rule Changes

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - After years of political debate about the issue, Maryland's highest court approved changes to the state's pretrial system on Tuesday to prevent people from being held in jail simply because they can't afford bail.
    
The Court of Appeals' seven judges unanimously approved the changes, which will be effective July 1. The changes mark the latest development in a growing push nationwide to keep cash bail alone from incarcerating the poor. They were approved after the court heard hours of testimony last month on revisions proposed by the state judiciary's Standing Committee on Rules and Practice and Procedure.
    
"You need to look at what the defendant's situation is, what his or her risks really are and attempt to fashion an ability to release on the least onerous conditions possibility," said Alan Wilner, a retired Court of Appeals judge who now serves as chairman of the committee.
    
Supporters of abolishing cash bail requirements argue that many poor defendants languish in jail for minor offenses while wealthy suspects accused of serious crimes can often post bail while awaiting trial. Cities in Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi and Louisiana have ended cash bail because of lawsuits filed by Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington D.C.-based legal aid group, the group says.
    
The changes in Maryland don't entirely eliminate the use of bail. Judicial officers can still set bail, so long as the arrestee can afford it. The changes also contain provisions to detain defendants who pose a danger to the community.
    
In October, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh urged the committee to ensure that judicial officers consider an individual's ability to pay bail, and not set financial conditions solely for the purpose of detaining a defendant. The attorney general's office had concluded the state's current pretrial bail system was likely unconstitutional, because people are incarcerated for inability to post bail.
    
The rules change comes after legislation to reform the state's bail system has been introduced for years but failed to pass in the General Assembly.
    
Wilner characterized the court decision as a milestone - in the sense that nothing has been done for years.
    
He also said, "To close the circle and to really make a real difference the legislature does need to step up and provide for what people are calling robust pretrial release service centers throughout the state to do risk assessments and to provide monitoring ... so that judicial officers can feel more comfortable releasing people, if they're going to be monitored."
    
He said he's hopeful the legislature will now take up more comprehensive reform.
    
"It is a work in progress and the important thing is that we got started," Wilner said. "We've moved off of where we were at least to second base and maybe coming around to third."

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