Poverty Needs to Be Decriminalized in Maryland

Courtesy of JOTF
Courtesy of JOTF

Maryland residents — particularly those of color — deprived of economic opportunities are routinely trapped in a cycle of poverty and criminalization, according to a report from the Job Opportunities Task Force, a statewide nonprofit that promotes programs and policies that increase the skills, job opportunities and incomes of low-wage workers and job seekers in Maryland.

Authors of the report, “The Criminalization of Poverty: How to Break the Cycle Through Policy Reform in Maryland,” said those trapped in that unfortunate cycle are there simply because they lack the financial resources to meet the demands of the law.

The 104-page document revealed that individuals of color who are poor experience a greater risk of becoming victims of the criminal justice than whites as a result of racial profiling, civil asset forfeiture, motor vehicle laws, and the collection of child support and civil debts.

The report was unveiled in Annapolis on Friday, March 23 with best-selling author Wes Moore, Republican Sen. Michael Hough, Democratic Delegate Erek Barron, Out for Justice, Inc. Executive Director Nicole Mundell, Baltimore’s Director of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development Jason Perkins and Job Opportunities Task Force Executive Director Caryn York.

Authors of the report said once in the criminal justice system, individuals of color are “disproportionately impacted for the worse by cash bail requirements, fines, and other fees — including, in many jurisdictions, having to pay for their own incarceration, probation, and parole supervision.”

Having a criminal record as a result of being arrested — event if the individual is immediately released and never convicted of a crime — also poses serious barriers to employment, securing public assistance and housing, and gaining admission to institutions of higher education, the report revealed.

Funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the report calls on Maryland officials to enforce laws that protect against racial profiling, abolish civil asset forfeiture, and eliminate driver’s license suspension as a penalty for non-payment of fines; limit the use of cash bail and fees and implement robust pre-trial services; expand the statewide “Ban the Box” law, as well as correctional education, job training, and education; and opt out of the felony drug ban on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Currently in Maryland, when an individual is arrested and taken into custody, they must appear before a District Court Commissioner for an initial hearing within 24 hours after arrest.

If the individual is not released on their own recognizance — with a written promise to return to court on a specified date — or with a bond, they are sent to a District Court judge for a bail review hearing, which occurs the next court business day, according to the report.

At either the initial hearing or the bail hearing, if an individual is not released on their own recognizance, the courts may offer three general types of financial bonds, an unsecured bond, where the defendant simply signs a document to personally guarantee they will appear, and if they do not, they will pay the full bond amount. They may also offer a 10 percent cash deposit on the bond.

A cash bond, where the defendant has the option to either pay the full bond amount in order to be released, with the bond returned at the end of the case provided that it is not forfeited for the individual’s failure to appear in court; or to engage the services of a commercial, for-profit bail bonding company that guarantees, before the defendant’s release, the full bond amount.

For this service, defendants typically pay a nonrefundable fee of 10 percent of the bond amount, either as a lump sum or in installments. If the defendant satisfies the cash bond and appears for court, their monies are reimbursed at the end of the trial, regardless of the verdict.

However, if an individual is unable to afford any of these options at the time of the hearing, they must stay in jail either until they raise enough money to afford one of the above options, or until the case against them is settled by either a plea or trial.

Jails may hold individuals awaiting trial as well as those who have been convicted and are serving short sentences or are awaiting transfer to prison.

Two-thirds of the individuals in Maryland’s jails are held pretrial, the majority due only to inability to post bond.

According to a 2014 report by the Commission to Reform Maryland’s Pretrial System, about 7,000 to 7,500 Marylanders are in jail awaiting trial on any given day.

On Jan. 1, 2017, there were 5,113 individuals being held in pretrial detention in Maryland.

Roughly 35 percent of these individuals were being held because they were unable to afford bail.

A 2014 study of six Maryland Jurisdictions found that 71 percent of defendants appearing at a bond review hearing had a secured financial bond set, with an average bond amount of $39,041.

Two-thirds of these individuals were unable to post bonds and remained in jail.

The data reveal that the situation is worst in Baltimore City, where defendants who are identified as low-risk have secured bond amounts that are set five times higher than those set for low-risk defendants in Montgomery County.

Despite not being convicted and posing a low threat to public safety, these individuals must choose between remaining in jail or risking their family’s financial ruin to be released on bond.

As one Baltimore defense lawyer stated, “they are literally being held hostage until they take the plea and admit guilt. The system needs to be overhauled.”

The most comprehensive study of Maryland’s pretrial detention system to date, conducted by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, included a statistical analysis of more than 700,000 District Court criminal cases filed from 2011 to 2015 in 18 jurisdictions.

It found that more than 46,000 defendants between 2011 and 2015 were detained more than five days at the start of their criminal case.

Of these, more than 17,000 were held on less than $5,000 bail.

The study revealed that the cost of using a commercial bail bondsman is high; Maryland communities were charged more than $256 million in nonrefundable corporate bail bond premiums from 2011 to 2015.

More than $75 million of these premiums were in cases that were resolved without any finding of wrongdoing. These data clearly show that the heavy reliance on money bail in Maryland enables the corporate bail bond industry to extract tens of millions of dollars from Maryland’s poorest zip codes.

The study also found a disproportionate impact on racial minorities, as black defendants were charged premiums of $181 million, while defendants of all other races combined were charged $75 million.

Moreover, despite all these costs, the study found that this form of secured money bail is no more effective than unsecured bonds, for which defendants pay nothing unless they fail to appear in court.

The cost of our current reliance on cash bail is also high for taxpayers. Maryland pretrial detention costs per-inmate per-day range from $83-$153; by comparison, pretrial assessment and supervision programs cost under $10 per person per day.

Thus, if Maryland reduced its pretrial population by as much as 23 percent, taxpayers could save more than $150,000 per day. These funds could be better spent on treatment, prevention and reentry, report authors said.

To view the full report, click here.

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About Stacy Brown 540 Articles
I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

1 Comment

  1. “Bail is intended to ensure defendants appear in court” so says Paul B. DeWolfe, the state’s public defender
    Any measure for the Reform of Bail, needs to measure, their chances of return along with affordability. Affordability should not overrule appearance in court.
    How many times has the defendant failed to show. You must measure by prior conduct, so on minor charges, the defendant gets out on his promise. If they do not appear, how do you get them in to court. Don’t just say they can’t afford the bond. It’s not that easy.

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