Maryland joins states aiming to limit or end the cash bail system

Does the cash bail system punish the poor, particularly those accused of minor drug crimes and similar offenses, instead of guaranteeing them the right to a fair trial?

Many people think so. Now, Maryland’s highest court has adopted a ruling that aims to end the practice of imprisoning the accused simply because they’re too poor to pay their bail. The cash bail system has come under increased scrutiny in many states lately because it has a disproportionate effect on those charged with low-level crimes who aren’t willing to accept a plea bargain.

For example, a New York defendant featured in one expose on the national issue was held for several weeks on the charge of possessing “drug paraphernalia.” What he actually had was a straw that was given to him when he purchased a soda inside a local store. While he was offered a plea deal that would have sent him home, he declined only in part because he was actually innocent. Part of his reason for refusing the deal was fear of what would happen if he was arrested again. The guilty plea would add to his criminal record.

Opponents of the cash bail system say that cases like his are happening all over the nation. Many defendants who are innocent plead guilty anyhow, just to avoid languishing in prison while they wait trail because they can’t afford the bail. They say it’s an open secret that the legal system would collapse if everyone insisted on his or her right to a fair trial, so bails set just out of reach of those without resources force the accused to choose between his or her rights and his or her desire to go free.

Maryland’s reforms are taking a middle-of-the-road approach. Rather than ending the system entirely (which was heavily opposed by the bail bond industry), it will instruct judges to take into account the individual circumstances of each defendant instead of setting bail according to the nature of the offense. It will also encourage the use of alternatives like pretrial supervision and electronic monitoring.

In addition to treating poor defendants more fairly and ensuring their right to a fair trail, the measures could save the state millions by reducing the number of prisoners being held for trial.

If you’re arrested on minor drug charges or something similar, don’t accept a plea deal without considering the implications for your future. An attorney can provide more information.

Source: The Baltimore Sun, “Maryland Court of Appeals: Defendants can’t be held in jail because they can’t afford bail,” Michael Dresser, Feb. 08, 2017

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