Likely voters overwhelmingly support decisions based on risk assessment instead of economic status
BALTIMORE – A new survey prepared by the Pretrial Justice Institute, with funding from Open Society Institute-Baltimore finds that 70 percent of likely voters favor using risk assessments as the determining factor for keeping someone in jail before trial, rather than their ability to pay cash bail. Only 10 percent of the likely voters surveyed support using cash bail as the determining factor.
The survey also found that 80 percent of voters agree that the criminal justice system should focus on arresting violent criminals rather than low-level offenders and that 86 percent agree that wealthy people are able to buy their way out of jail. The full report is available online.
The report comes just weeks after Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, responding to a letter from state legislators, declared that Maryland’s current bail scheme – which imposes financial conditions despite a person’s inability to pay – is “likely unconstitutional.” In response to the AG’s letter, the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Maryland Court of Appeals is currently considering changes to how judges decide whether to set bail as a condition of someone’s release.
“After years of stalling, Maryland finally seems to be on the cusp of enacting pretrial changes that could make it a national leader on this issue,” says Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute. “As they undertake this serious work, it is important for policymakers to know that the things AG Frosh and others are advocating are not just good government, they are exactly what residents and voters expect.”
In addition to the judiciary, Maryland state legislators are also looking into what it will take to replace Maryland’s cash bail system with one that does not impose unnecessary and onerous conditions on people who can safely be released into the community while they await their trial.
“We applaud the Maryland judiciary for the steps it is taking,” says Tara Huffman, director of OSI-Baltimore’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program. “But the Maryland legislature must also act to ensure our pretrial system is incarcerating only those people who present a risk to public safety. Maryland voters are increasingly aware that our current system is broken, and they want their elected officials to help fix it. ”
As the report explains, Maryland’s pretrial justice system is outdated, ineffective, expensive and dangerous. Far too often, the ability to post money bail is the determining factor of whether a person is released or detained, regardless of the person’s likelihood to come back to court for his or her trial and to stay out of trouble before the trial. As a result, the majority of people in Maryland jails are people too poor to purchase their release, while higher-risk people with access to money are able get out.
Twice over the past four years, Maryland has convened high-level state commissions to study its pretrial system and to recommend reforms. Although the recommendations were nearly identical in both cases, the state has failed to act upon them in a meaningful way. The report, however, demonstrates that there is a growing consensus around reform in Maryland.