The High Cost of Bail: How Maryland’s Reliance on Money Bail Jails the Poor and Costs the Community Millions
A November 2016 report by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender concluded that Maryland’s reliance on a wealth-based pretrial detention scheme causes the incarceration of tens of thousands of people due to their inability to pay bail. The costs are also steep for those who are able to make at least a down payment to a bail bondsman. The resulting debt owed over and above the down payments often leads to a cycle of debt keeping individuals mired in poverty. The report further concluded that bail bondsmen charge the community hundreds of millions of dollars in premiums to post bond so that presumptively innocent people can be free while awaiting trial. The communities that are charged the most in bond premiums are some of the poorest communities in Maryland.
In 2013 Governor Martin O’Malley ordered the formation of a Commission to Reform Maryland’s Pretrial System. The Commission found that while violent crime diminished in Maryland between 1998 and 2014, the State’s pretrial detainee population had increased over the same period. The Commission determined that 68|PERCENT| of the pretrial detainees were only detained because they could not post a bond set by a judicial officer.
Shannon, a 27 year old female mother of two is an example of a detainee who was jailed because she couldn’t afford to come up with $1000.00 to buy her way out of jail. Her younger sister who suffers from a mental illness had filed an assault charge against her. It was five days before friends and family were able come up with $1000.00 by pawning personal items and borrowing from anyone they knew in order to bail Shannon out of jail. Three months later the charges were dismissed. Every year thousands of people spend months in jail unable to post bond only to have their cases dismissed. Others agree to accept time-served pleas to avoid spending additional time behind bars because they cannot afford to post bail.
In addition to the unmistakably negative impact on the poorest communities, Maryland’s wealth based system disproportionately harms racial minorities. The Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s report determined that racial disparities are evident in the assessment of money bail. The mean bail amount for black defendants is 45|PERCENT| higher than the mean amount for white defendants at the initial appearance before a District Court Commissioner ($48,895 versus $33,678) and 51|PERCENT| higher at the bail review hearing before a District Court judge ($54,565 versus $36,224). Moreover, the racial disparity in mean bail amounts creates a racial disparity in the premiums charged to defendants. Black defendants were charged more than 181 million in premiums by the bail bond industry (during the five-year period covered by the study) more than twice the premiums charged to the defendants of all other races combined even though only approximately 30|PERCENT| of the Maryland population identified as black.
Maryland’s reliance on money bail has caused a huge transfer of wealth from some of Maryland’s poorest communities to the bail bond industry. In a letter to five legislators, the Attorney General of Maryland concluded that setting bail in an amount not affordable to the defendant thus effectively denying release “raises a significant risk that the Court of Appeals would find that it violates due process.” Following the receipt and publishing of this opinion letter, the Court of Appeals adopted a Rule change that will mandate an individualized assessment of the defendant’s situation including whether he has the means to post bail.
The bail reform movement active in Maryland and throughout the country seeks to guarantee that presumptively innocent people are not jailed before trial merely because they are too poor to post bail. The new court rule is a step in the right direction but real reform will not happen until the wealth-based system is abolished.