Policy: Law

Judges propose reducing steps in bail process

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Local,Maryland,Law

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Some of Maryland's judges are proposing the state reduce the number of steps in the bail-setting process.

A judiciary task force recommended on Wednesday that the state bundle two separate bail hearings into a single conference before a judge. That would eliminate the role of court commissioners who currently assign initial bail.

The task force is making recommendations to help address a ruling by Maryland's highest court requiring that poor defendants have legal representation at initial bail reviews. It's estimated that complying with the ruling could cost $28 to $30 million. The judges estimate that holding only one hearing would only cost a little more than $6 million.

However, public defenders warned the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday about "hidden costs," including more jail time before the initial hearings. They fear bail hearings would become less frequent because judges don't work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unlike the commissioners who currently set bail.

Aside from the price tag, they see it as an injustice to defendants who would otherwise never have to see the inside of a jail cell. Commissioners release many people at their initial bail hearings.

The state has asked the Court of Appeals to reconsider the ruling that it must staff every initial bail hearing with a public defender.

The legislature may revise its bail assignment process regardless of the Court of Appeals ruling. Some see it as a chance to improve the system.

"We're under the gun any which way the court decides tomorrow," said Ricardo Flores, government relations director for the state's public defender office, just after he finished testifying before the House committee.

Ben Clyburn, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, said simplifying the bail process would benefit defendants by letting them see a judge earlier in the process. His task force also suggests relying more on videoconferences to reduce transportation costs.

On the other hand, the $6 million estimate assumes judges would not conduct bail hearings on weekends. Clyburn said his task force would consider adding weekend hours in the future, but doing so would approximately double personnel costs.

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