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Bail-bond industry fights for strong bail stance in Maryland

The posts on Facebook are ominous: A suspected domestic abuser, released without bond, is accused of killing his girlfriend while awaiting his court date. Criminal suspects, who once would have had to put up money before getting out of jail, are now walking free, with no guarantee they will show up for trial.

The bail-bond industry is pulling out all the stops, Maryland lawmakers say, trying to revoke what bondsmen are calling the get-out-of-jail-free card given to some defendants by the state’s highest court.

With less than two weeks remaining in the legislative session, months of activity aimed at preserving Maryland’s bail system have reached a crescendo. Lawmakers say they are under heavy pressure from lobbyists to support a pro-bail bill that passed the Senate last week and is awaiting action in the more liberal House of Delegates.

The legislation would overturn a landmark rule change by the Maryland Court of Appeals that tells judges not to impose bail on poor defendants who are not a danger or a flight risk. The court based its decision on legal opinions that say it is unconstitutional to keep people jailed before trial simply because they cannot come up with enough cash to get out.

If the court rule is overturned, Maryland, long considered progressive on criminal-justice issues, will stand in opposition to other states that have taken up bail-system overhauls.

“It’s a regressive move,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, chief executive of the Pretrial Justice Institute. “And it’s pretty simple politics. … Money talks.”

Although the change doesn’t formally take effect until July, statistics show that slightly more people already are being held without bond or freed on personal recognizance, and longtime bail bondsmen such as Vinnie Magliano say their business has dropped by as much as 70 percent.

“They’re trying to kill us,” said Magliano, owner of EastCoast Bailbonds in Essex, Maryland. “We have to do whatever we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The bail industry threw two lavish dinners for lawmakers at Ruth’s Chris in Annapolis last month and donated tens of thousands of dollars to politicians ahead of this year’s legislative session.

Last week, lawmakers say, they began hearing from constituents who had received scripted phone calls, encouraging them to call their representatives and demand that they take action to preserve the option of bail.

Del. Curtis Anderson, D-Baltimore, likened the fervor over the bill to the push in 2012 for expanded gambling. “They seem to be desperate,” he said.

And, unlike the industry’s bruising defeats in New Jersey and New Mexico, where legislative efforts resulted in limits on bail, the last-ditch push in Maryland may be having some effect.

The powerful Legislative Black Caucus is meeting Thursday to consider whether to support or oppose the bill that passed the Senate last week, allowing judges to impose bail without regard to a defendant’s economic status.

The caucus, which includes 40 of the 91 Democrats in the House, had been a supporter of the court rule limiting bail. But several members appear to have shifted their position.

Del. Jay Walker, D, chairman of the Prince George’s County delegation, said he has been torn about the bill but was persuaded to vote yes by the bill sponsor, Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s, who is also a caucus member.

“I normally try to be supportive of the Black Caucus,” said Walker, who said he has been told by bail-industry lobbyists that the court rule will lead to more defendants jailed until trial or not returning to court for trial. “But not having bail – I don’t know if that makes the public safer.”

Muse says his bill will help poor defendants by allowing judges to use bail instead of other pretrial release conditions that could be more onerous. For example, he said, when judges order ankle monitors as a condition of release, defendants have to pay about $400 a month to cover the costs.

“There should not be a one size fits all” in the justice system, Muse said.

Del. Erek Barron, D-Prince George’s, who has been encouraging colleagues to vote against Muse’s bill, said the purpose of the court rule is not to eliminate bail but to avoid penalizing poor defendants more than others who have the ability to pay.

“The goal is to ensure that there is an individualized assessment of every defendant,” he said.

Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, the head of the Black Caucus, said this week that she had not made a decision on whether to support Muse’s bill. But she said it has some merit, given the support it has received from some in the legal community, including J. Wyndal Gordon, a Baltimore lawyer.

Anti-bail advocates have fought for a decade in Maryland to keep judges from setting bond at levels defendants cannot afford, potentially leaving them behind bars for days or weeks before trial. Such situations can lead to jobs lost and children uncared for, advocates say, and also drive up jail costs for taxpayers.

Maryland’s bail system “has constitutional problems,” Barron said, adding that the Muse bill “doesn’t take us back to where we were. It takes us even further back.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, D, who sought the court rule change, said other states that have taken similar actions have not seen drastic increases in defendants failing to show up for trial. “The purpose of the rule is to let people out when they’re not a threat. Why do you need a bill to fix that?” said Frosh, a former state senator. He said Muse’s bill will only result in “lining the pockets of bondsmen.”

Nicholas Wachinski, the chief executive of Lexington National Insurance, a bond surety company that is heading the campaign for the bail bill, did not return calls seeking comment.

The industry has hired some of the state’s top lobbyists, including Gerard Evans, who got his start in Annapolis 40 years ago working as an intern to now-Senate President Thomas “Mike” Miller , D-Calvert, then a freshman senator.

It poured $87,000 into the campaign coffers of state politicians, with nearly a quarter of the contributions – $21,000 – going to Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, the chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which first approved Muse’s bill in early March. Just days before the start of the session, Lexington National gave $5,000 to Muse and $3,000 each to Miller and House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore.

Miller helped shepherd Muse’s bill through the full Senate after a companion bill was pulled in the House, and he says he believes that bail bondsmen have “a role to play.”

Bail bondsmen charge defendants 10 percent of the secured bond set by judges and guarantee the full bond to the court if a defendant does not return for trial. Defendants who are found innocent or have charges dismissed must still pay the 10 percent to the bondsmen.

These days, the phones are not ringing as often as they once did at companies such as EastCoast Bailbonds, Magliano’s storefront in a working-class neighborhood in Baltimore County.

“This system could have been tweaked and fixed,” Magliano said on a recent day, arguing it would make better sense for judges to set more-moderate bails than to do away with the concept altogether.

He said he gets frustrated hearing people such as Frosh “who know nothing about what is going on in places like Baltimore.”

“They think we take the money and don’t do nothing. We are so close to the people that we’re with.”

During a visit last month to the Baltimore County courthouse in Towson, Maryland, Magliano watched Judge Norman Stone III deny bail to several defendants, including a man charged with first-degree assault, another with a criminal record who was charged with first- and second-degree assault, and a drug addict accused of stealing.

The judge released on her own recognizance a woman who had no criminal record and had argued with her boyfriend while drinking and tried to hit him with a car. No more contact with the boyfriend, Stone told her.

Magliano found no new customers that day. But he ran into an old one, a repeat drunken-driving offender, as soon as he stepped out of his shiny black Cadillac Escalade in the courthouse parking lot.

“Hey, Vinnie,” the man shouted.

“What are you doing here?” the bail bondsman yelled back.

“I’m on my fourth,” the man said. “I’ll be OK, or I’ll hit you up.”

Magliano had bailed the man out three times before. He didn’t hear from him this time, though.

Since the legislative session began Jan. 11, Magliano and other bondsmen have spent plenty of time at committee hearings in Annapolis. Some attended the dinners at Ruth’s Chris Steak House that the industry hosted for key lawmakers. The industry also started a Facebook page, Marylanders for Public Safety, where posters list examples of defendants released on their own recognizance instead of paying bail. Last week, the phone calls to legislators’ offices began.

Sen. William Smith, D-Montgomery, who voted against Muse’s bill, said his Annapolis staff was inundated with calls from constituents who wrongly accused him of being against bail reform and wanting to keep people locked up. Those who called said they had received phone calls themselves, from a person who denounced Smith’s position, offered up the lawmaker’s office phone number and urged the constituents to register a complaint.

“I can’t say for certain who paid for it,” Smith said. “But there is only one industry that benefits from this bill.”