- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Time is running short for legislators to overhaul Maryland’s bail system this session. Otherwise the state will have to spend as much as $30 million yearly to meet a state Court of Appeals requirement by paying extra attorneys.

A joint workgroup of senators and delegates is trying to compromise between the plans favored by their respective chambers. Amid these negotiations, Senate President Thomas Mike V. Miller Jr. told reporters Tuesday that Baltimore should handle the problem alone. He said a proposed solution from Sen. Brian Frosh would waste millions of dollars.

“There’s 10 different bills and 10 different solutions in search of a problem,” Miller told reporters after the Senate adjourned. “They need to address the problem in Baltimore city. They’ve got the power to do that in Baltimore city.”

However, lawyers involved in the case that sparked the debate say the entire state - not just Baltimore - has a legal obligation to change its practices. As for Frosh’s bill, the Department of Legislative Services estimates it would cost $7.6 million less than the cost of hiring extra attorneys for bail hearings in the first year.

Approximately three weeks are left in this year’s legislative session.

The state Court of Appeals has ruled that Maryland must provide a public defender for every indigent defendant at every bail hearing. The decision arose from a Baltimore case, but it was based on the state constitution and applies universally, said Ricardo Flores, government relations director for Maryland’s Office of the Public Defender.

“It’s irresponsible to think that a Court of Appeals decision based on Maryland’s Declaration of Rights can only be applied to one jurisdiction or county, and not the entire state,” Flores said.

Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor involved in the case, said he doesn’t think a single Maryland county meets the requirement right now.

In Maryland, it typically takes two hearings to set a defendant’s bail. A court employee sets the bail initially, and the defendant can appeal that decision before a judge.

Instead of hiring extra lawyers to staff those early hearings, Frosh’s bill would establish a statewide pretrial release unit. Pretrial release officers would use a formula that considers multiple risk factors to determine each person’s probability of leaving town or committing more crimes, so low-risk offenders could be released right away.

Miller said on Tuesday this new unit would cost $35-40 million.

This is technically true but misleading, according to a fiscal analysis from the Department of Legislative Services. The unit would cost at least $32.2 million in its first year and at least $45.1 million by the 2019 fiscal year. But overall, it would save the state a net $7.6 million in its first year, compared to the cost of hiring new attorneys, and the savings would go up from there, the report states.

Another proposed solution is to bundle the two bail hearings into one event, where a judge would preside.

The Associated Press could not reach Miller for further comment later on Tuesday.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the House Judiciary Committee have taken up these proposals, but neither has advanced a bill for a full chamber vote. Each favors a different measure, and the joint workgroup is supposed to reach a compromise, Flores said.

The requirement imposed by the Court of Appeals is scheduled to take hold in June.

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