Bail Reform Begins with the Bench

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The New York Times

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BALTIMORE — Increased scrutiny of this city’s justice system has now expanded to include its sky-high bail amounts. Those accused of a crime may spend months in jail because they were assessed bail far beyond their means, even though nearly 45 percent of all misdemeanor and 30 percent of all felony cases here are ultimately dismissed.

It’s a nightmare for low-income families. While those accused of a crime are incarcerated waiting for their trial, their spouses and children suffer lost income and the absence of a parent. Even when a family can get enough money together to make a down payment to a bail bondsman, the resulting debt drains their finances for years.

But last month, the Maryland attorney general wrote that Baltimore’s bail system may not hold up constitutionally, and the public has been galvanized by a Baltimore Sun report about a circuit judge who admitted that she set high bail even though it meant more “poor people wind up in jail.”

Bail reform may finally be on the table. But the system isn’t unfair just because the bail set is often shockingly high. Defense lawyers have also long argued that the police reports that judges rely on to determine bail are vague and legally deficient. Many arrest statements do not describe the crime in question, and they often indicate that the police obtained evidence illegally.