ANNAPOLIS – Bail bondsmen and prominent Maryland public officials clashed Wednesday at a hearing on a bill that could hurt bondsmen by encouraging defendants to pay bail directly to the court.
At issue is whether Marylanders should be explicitly informed of their right to post their bond by depositing 10 percent of the full amount with the court clerk.
The law now allows defendants to directly pay the court, which is refundable provided they show up for their hearings, but most defendants don’t know the law and use bail bondsmen who do not refund their money, supporters said.
Defendants may also pay bail bondsman 10 percent of their court-ordered bail. If the defendant fails to show for the hearing, the bondsman can take the person into custody and turn them in to the police.
Witnesses on both sides of the issue raised their voices, paced the floor and argued before senators as they would before a jury.
“Remove, in part, the weight of poverty from the scales of justice,” said Stephen H. Sachs, former Maryland attorney general. “The key issue is whether private companies deserve the monopoly grip on the public that they have.”
Former Democratic U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings also argued in favor of the bill.
“At least you can take a step forward,” Tydings said. “This legislation would make a negative difference for the poorest of the poor.”
The rhetoric was similarly emotional on the other side.
“What you’re going to offer with this bill is a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Ira C. Cooke, lobbyist for the Maryland Bail Bondsmen Association.
However, proponents spoke of a working man – accused of twice driving with a suspended license – who sat in jail for 28 days because he could not afford to pay a $500 bail bond, 10 percent of his court-ordered bail. The man lost his job.
Opponents said the bail wasn’t the problem. The man was.
“He should have gotten his butt to court,” Cooke said, of the man who missed two court hearings previously. “If he was just Joe Blow, average citizen he wouldn’t get bail.” He would just be released on his own promise to come to court, he said.
Two officials from Wisconsin, which has a limited bail bond industry, told the committee that bondsmen’s focus on profits often leave poor inmates behind bars longer than necessary.
People with low bails are not offered bond because bondmen do not make much money from the deals, they said. For example, if a person has a $500 bail, a bondsman would only make $50 by paying on their behalf.
“The judge ought to make the decision on the release and not the bail bondsman,” said Michael McCann, district attorney from Milwaukee County in Wisconsin. “The bondsman is not constrained by the 14th Amendment. He is not accountable to anybody.”
Supporters said the bill would ease jail overcrowding and save taxpayers money. It costs the state $54 a day to support jail inmates.
The showy presentations by witnesses left Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, peeved. He chided both bill supporters and opponents before leaving the hearing.
“This was show time,” said Baker, who would not say whether he is for or against the bill. “I’ve got better things to do than listen to the rest of these bills.”
– 30 – CNS-3-6-02