“It’s an unfair system,” says Bill L, who was detained for 40 days in the Montgomery County Detention Center on $7,500 bail. “You are guilty until proven innocent. The average person won’t have the money unless you’re rich. For the poor man, $750 might as well be $10,000, or $100,000. There are people in here with $100 bond who can’t get out.”
“There is no credible research that supports the continued use of money bail,” says Tara Huffman, director of OSI’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program. “We do, however, have credible data showing that the cash bail system disproportionately impacts people of color and people with limited means. Money shouldn’t play a role in pretrial decisions, and it’s time for Maryland to take money out of the equation.”
Money shouldn’t play a role in pretrial decisions, and it’s time for Maryland to take money out of the equation.
OSI-Baltimore’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program has long recognized that Maryland’s cash bail system unfairly penalizes the poor for their economic status by using wealth to determine a defendant’s pre-trial freedom. People who pose no public safety risk should not be held before trial simply because they can’t afford to pay bail. People who do pose a public safety risk should not be released, even if they have the means to pay large bail amounts.
Holding a defendant in jail even for a short time can result in long-term consequences, such as loss of income or housing, disruptions to child care, and decreased access to legal representation, among other disadvantages. OSI-Baltimore supports programs working to reform the pre-trial detention policy of holding defendants in jail because they are unable to afford cash bail. In 2016, OSI-Baltimore convened the Coalition for a Safe and Just Maryland, a broad range of community activists and state and national advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Maryland, the Public Justice Center, Out for Justice, Job Opportunities Task Force, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, and others to work toward statewide pretrial justice reform.
When Maryland’s Attorney General Brian Frosh opined that the state’s bail system was likely unconstitutional, the Coalition supported a rule change that would prevent judges from imposing bail beyond the financial means of defendants. The rule, which went into effect on July 1, 2017, requires judges to consider non-financial conditions of release, such as community-based pretrial services, as an alternative to money bail. If they decide that cash bail is needed to ensure someone’s return to court, they cannot impose an amount the defendant cannot afford.
Through well-coordinated efforts in 2017, the Coalition successfully defended the new rule from a bail industry-funded attempt to roll it back. The Coalition’s work continued this year, when OSI-Baltimore released a paper making the case that statewide pretrial services are necessary to implement bail reform fully. These efforts led to policymakers allocating $1 million in state funding to expand pretrial services in Maryland.