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Report: Campaign cash from bail industry surged as state considered reforms

The bail bond industry poured $87,000 into the campaign coffers of Maryland politicians in 2016, according to a report released Wednesday by Common Cause Maryland.

The influx of donations – which Common Cause said was significantly larger than in previous years – came as the General Assembly prepared to consider whether to alter or eliminate cash bail for most poor defendants.

The largest portion of the 2016 contributions, $21,000, went to Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. That panel will play a key role in deciding the fate of the state’s money-based bail system.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the report shows how “special interests seek special influence in Maryland.”

Zirkin said Wednesday that the campaign contributions from the bail bond industry represent a small fraction of the $483,000 he has in his campaign account. The money, he said, has “zero to do with how I vote on bills.”

“I hope people contribute to me because when they look at the whole picture they respect me as a legislator, and they respect that I make decisions based on what is the best public policy,” he said. “And if they don’t, then they shouldn’t contribute to me.”

Zirkin said he is in favor of reforming the bail system, and believes the state needs more pretrial services, including drug and mental health treatment.

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Maryland politicians received more from the bail bonds industry between 2011 and 2014 than their counterparts across the country. The advocacy group said Maryland took in $168,166, ahead of second-place California ($114,875) and third-place Texas ($78,005).

The Common Cause report says that Gov. Larry Hogan, R,took in $11,300 from the bail bond industry in 2016, the second-highest total after Zirkin. Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, R, followed, with $6,000.

Sen. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s, and Sen. Wayne Norman, R-Harford, who both sit on judicial proceedings, each received $5,000. Del. Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which must approve any bills dealing with bail reform before they can be considered by the full House, received $2,250 from the industry.

The report does not detail donations by groups that are pushing for a reduction in the use of cash bail, which advocates say is discriminatory because it keeps poor people locked up awaiting trial on relatively minor charges while more affluent defendants can post bond and return home until they have to appear in court.

An official with the Maryland Bail Bonds Association did not return an email seeking comment.

Lawmakers in Annapolis have tried to make major changes to the bail system for almost a decade. The issue came to the forefront last year after five Democratic lawmakers asked Attorney General Brian Frosh, D, to weigh in on whether the current system was constitutional. Several class-action lawsuits have been filed in San Francisco and the suburbs of St. Louis over whether cash bail unfairly discriminates against the poor.

Frosh said the system could violate due process. As a result of Frosh’s decision, District Court Chief Judge John Morrissey advised judges and commissioners in October to impose the “least onerous” conditions on those awaiting trial.

Frosh also asked the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, to consider a rule change to ensure that defendants who aren’t a public safety risk don’t remain in jail simply because they are poor. The court has said it will act on the request next month. In the meantime, lawmakers have said they plan to propose legislation this session to address bail reform.

On Tuesday, members of the House Judiciary Committee took a field trip to Anne Arundel County District Court to observe the bail system firsthand. They watched as defendants appeared on a flat-screen television on the side wall of Courtroom No. 2. A camera, mounted on the top of the screen, faced Judge H. Richard Duden III, who decided whether the defendants should remain in jail or be released.

A 16-year-old charged with first-degree assault and reckless endangerment was ordered held with no bond. The prosecutor said the teenager, who was living in a motel in Laurel, was allegedly involved in drug distribution and prostitution and supplied his victim with drugs.

Duden decided to lower the bond of a 33-year-old Prince Frederick man charged with driving under the influence of drugs after his public defender said that “any bail is no bail for him” – meaning he had no money to pay even a small amount.

Duden told the defendant that he would have to pay 10 percent of a $1,000 bond to get out of jail, and could not drive or use drugs. He would be subject to an in-person meeting with a case manager each week; one check with the case manager by phone each week; two mandatory urine tests each month on a random basis; and other stipulations made by the court or case manager.

After the bail review hearings ended, Duden told his “class” of legislators that they had witnessed “the most difficult thing” a district court judge faces.

Del. Pam Queen, D-Montgomery, asked Duden why he didn’t consider house arrest instead of bail for the Prince Frederick man, who had no job and no income. He said house arrest is something that is generally used with more violent crimes.

“I didn’t consider it, but maybe I should have,” Duden said.

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