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  March 30, 2017

Maryland Black Caucus Votes Against Rollback of Bail Reform

The legislative group wants to stop a bill supported by the bail industry that would undo a recent court decision rolling back the use of money bail for low-income defendants - By Taya Graham and Stephen Janis
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CARYN YORK: And what we've seen this session, you know, I tell folks, I've been doing this work for years. And I tell folks that bail reform, our efforts around pre-trial reform, this session has probably been the hardest issue that I've ever worked on in my life.

TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for The Real News Network in Annapolis, Maryland.

We're here at the State Capitol where we have breaking news. The Congressional Black Caucus has just voted against Bail Reform Bill SB-983, a bill sponsored by the bail industry. Here to discuss the implications of this is investigative reporter Stephen Janis. Now, Stephen, can you tell us a little bit about this bail reform bill SB-983?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, this bill, this -– it's not a bill... reform bill, basically it was a bill that would basically undo a recent ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals, which said that judges should use discretion when an indigent person, or a person who can't afford bail, there should be no bail. It basically would really curtail the use of cash bail; especially with poor people in the state, which has been a big issue, a big justice reform issue.

This bill would've undone this, and sort of put us back in the whole money bail situation. So, the Black Caucus coming out against it is a big, big statement, because it's already gone through the Senate. So, it looks like it's very possible they can undo some of the progress that has already been made.

TAYA GRAHAM: What are the next steps for the Black Caucus? This bill still has some life in it.

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, the Black Caucus is really just saying they don't want this to go forward. But the bill has passed the Senate, is in the Rules Committee, and once the Rules Committee works it out, it could still come out of Committee and end up getting voted on on the floor. So, really, there's going to be a lot of lobbying, a lot of pushing by advocates, some of whom we talked to, and we will hear from later, who say that this is not over, this is a good step. But it's quite possible this bill could still go forward.

TAYA GRAHAM: Well, one of the advocates mentioned that there was also a profit motive in the act of having legislators vote for this non-bail reform, bail reform bill. Isn't there some profit motive there?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, yeah. I mean, the two committee chairmen of the committees that actually hear these bills, Bobby Zirkin, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Joseph Vallario, who runs the House Judiciary Committee, the two committees which these bills go through, got roughly 11% to 12% of their entire cash from the bail industry, so, no doubt, the money at stake.

But, you know, when you look at it relatively speaking, I mean, we talked to Professor Doug Colbert, from the University of Maryland, who said it's basically a $100 million industry in Maryland. So, the money that, you know, $100,000 went to Bobby Zirkin, or whatever the number is, is so relatively small compared to the profits that people are making.

Let's go to our interviews and see what people had to say about this.

DEL. CURT ANDERSON: Right. The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus just voted by a 31 to 5 margin, to allow the Court of Appeals rule to stand, and take effect, and to kill Senate Bill 983, which was, quote-unquote, "the bail bondsmen's bill". The court rule will stand for the rest of the year, and then if we come back next year and there needs to be changes, we can do that then.

STEPHEN JANIS: Do you think that that will... that's the end of this at this point, for this session? Or, I mean, because sometimes people ignore the caucus.

DEL. CURT ANDERSON: People never ignore the caucus. No. You know, with a statement this strong, I think that's the end of the issue, yes.

STEPHEN JANIS: What do you think is going to happen? We're waiting to hear what happens with this bill for bail reform, and what do you think is going to happen?

BRIAN FROSH: Well, I'm hopeful that the court rule will go into effect. It's going to have a very positive development in a number of different ways. I mean, first of all, there'll be fewer people held in jail because they're poor. Second, I think you'll see better results, better public safety, more people showing up for trial. And the Legislature ought to give that rule an opportunity to go into effect. Let's see how it works. They'll be back here next year. If it's not working, they can fix it.

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, now, you came out very early on on this issue, saying that bail was probably... possibly unconstitutional. Have you been surprised about the pushback? I mean, the bail industry seems to have a lot of power.

BRIAN FROSH: They do have a lot of power. And there's... we identified, and others have identified, a very serious problem, namely that people are held in jail for one single reason: they're poor. Period. The court rule fixes that. And regardless of the power of any industry, the power of justice is great. I think that the General Assembly gets the message, and I'm hopeful they'll let the court rule go into effect.

STEPHEN JANIS: I mean, we had a report that bail is unconstitutional, we all know that how the issue has gotten a lot of support in this reform. Are you surprised about how hard it's been in terms of how persistent the bail industry has been in trying to get rid of this ruling by the Court of Appeals?

DAYVON LOVE: I'm not surprised. But it's actually been a very enlightening experience, as to the extent to which money and resources can influence a process so much, that something that for many folks is essentially a no-brainer can be so controversial.

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. I mean, and that's the thing. I mean, really, it seemed like a no-brainer, but it ended up being down to the wire. Going forward, what are your concerns? I mean, do you think the Court of Appeals ruling goes far enough, or does more need to be done?

DAYVON LOVE: Well, I think definitely more needs to be done. But particularly in the area of pre-trial release, we need to really look at investing in robust pre-trial services, so we have a large array of alternatives to detention. Because what we don't want, is we don't want a situation where folks are being detained just because there aren't alternatives.

STEPHEN JANIS: ... pretty forcefully voted to stop this bill. Do you think that's the end of this story?

CARYN YORK: No. It is not. (laughs)

STEPHEN JANIS: And why not?

CARYN YORK: Because anything could happen in Annapolis. We have –- what? –- Less than two weeks left of session, and while they sent a very strong message, you know, the very strong racial justice argument that's been upheld, in terms of the whole bail reform effort, the idea that the majority of individuals that are impacted are poor people of color, poor black men and women.

You know, it's great that the Black Caucus finally very forcefully took a position of opposition to this bill that would perpetuate the current system. However, like I said, anything can happen in Annapolis. There are a number of steps that could still take effect, a number of options and interventions that could ultimately effectively revive this bill.

So, while the Black Caucus has voted to oppose it, we're hoping that the Speaker will take that into account, and use that as an opportunity to say we should not... the Black Caucus is saying we shouldn't move this forward. It would hurt... it will continue to hurt poor black and brown folk.

We hope he would take that into account, but, you know, you still have the actual House Rules Committee, in which the bill is sitting. And so, there is still an opportunity for the bill to come up for a vote in the Rules Committee. And then for it to be moved out of the Rules Committee and then head to the House Judiciary Committee where we know is chaired by House Chairman Joe Vallario, who is very adamantly in support of Senate Bill 983.

So, it's not over. This is a great, first, big step in a number of steps that, you know, could potentially lead to the demise of Senate Bill 983. But it ain't ovah...

But using the example of the Women's Caucus or even something like the Latino Caucus, you know, there are certain initiatives where they take very strong positions of either support or opposition on particular pieces of legislation, and those caucuses are given courtesies.

Just, like, if there's a particular piece of legislation that has a specific impact on a certain jurisdiction, those jurisdictions are given local courtesy. And then the committees and the necessary powers that be, give deference to those entities, and those courtesies, and so using that same context, and applying it to the Black Caucus in this instance, we would hope that given that when it comes to bail reform, when it comes to our pre-trial system, we're very clear about the fact that this disproportionately impacts people of color, poor people of color.

And so, if the Black Caucus, whose constituencies very clearly, directly represent people of color, and they're saying this bill, Senate Bill 983, does nothing to help people of color –- actually, it doesn't even just perpetuate the system, it actually takes us a step back –- then I would assume, I would hope, that the Speaker and the House leadership will take that into account, and respect the vote of the Black Caucus.

TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Annapolis, Maryland.




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