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WYPR's Senior News Analyst opines on recent Maryland news.

New Bail System Increases Fairness & Due Process

Tom Chalkley

The cause of greater justice in the courts advanced last week with little if any disruption.

The accused were told at initial bail hearings that they had a right to legal representation, and that the state would provide a lawyer if they could not afford one. This is critically important, because freedom is at stake; no bail, no freedom.

Commissioners do not decide guilt or innocence. They do determine if a detainee should be held without bail. If the answer is yes, bail is set or the arrestee is released on his or her own recognizance.

The courts were catching up with a 2013 ruling by Maryland’s highest court.  Commissioners must now decide if arrestees qualify for government-provided lawyers. Applicable poverty guidelines are used to make the decision. Lawyers oversee the process.

Chief District Court Judge John Morrissey said his job now is to be sure the court-ordered representation is available for an estimated 153,00 individuals each year. Hearings go on in 41 locations around the state.

This volume explains the legislative concern. Last year, after the Court of Appeals ruling, lawmakers worried that Maryland faced enormous costs. Now, the lawyers come from a volunteer sign-up roster, which reportedly is growing. The lawyers can simply volunteer their time, or they can get $50 an hour, plus travel expenses.

The money comes from $10 million added to the courts’ budget by the General Assembly. No precise data on the cost is available, since representation at bail hearings had not been required in the past.

What happens down the road if volunteerism does not suffice apparently will be decided...down the road.

The Assembly’s $10 million amounts to a temporary price tag on fairness and due process.