Baltimore resident Yolanda (whose name has been changed to protect anonymity) was charged with attempted murder in November 2020 and was denied bail. That means she spent months in pretrial detention at the notoriously corrupt and dangerous Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC) for a crime she had not yet gone to trial over or been found guilty of—and that she says she did not commit.
Yolanda complained of deplorable medical care behind bars and borrowed money from family members to hire a lawyer to help secure her release, which for her could have meant the difference between life and death. Just months before her arrest, doctors told her she was suffering from heart failure and required a second open heart surgery. Her preexisting conditions put her at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19—and jails are an inevitable superspreader of the coronavirus.
“I not only suffered from heart failure, I had other medical issues like asthma attacks, but nurses refused to treat me,” Yolanda told Battleground Baltimore. “I was really afraid I would die in there.”
With court cases delayed by months in Baltimore City, Yolanda was among hundreds of people held behind bars during the pandemic for increasing lengths of time before they faced trial. The vast majority of those charged with crimes in Baltimore and held in pretrial detention are not convicted. An analysis by the legal advocacy group Baltimore Action Legal Team (BALT) found that in 2019, 75% of defendants who were not granted bail had the charges against them dropped, or they were acquitted at trial.
“People want to get their day in court, they want to be able to prove they’re not guilty,” Samantha Blau, BALT’s policy and engagement director told Battleground Baltimore. “And a lot of times people end up not being found guilty in Baltimore City.”
As courts faced backlogs of cases and COVID-19 spread rapidly behind bars, calls to decrease the prison population moved Maryland courts to take action: Judges began releasing select clients to home detention with private electronic monitoring, a technology that, until that point, had primarily been used for post-conviction release.
Unlike bail, home detention fees are not returned to the client after their trial. A scathing 2021 study by the George Washington University Law School details the proliferation of such monitoring devices, which confine people to their homes, intrude on their privacy, undermine personal and family dignity, extract wealth from those who can least afford it, and set up people to fail and face reincarceration.
In his new book, Understanding E-Carceration, author and “survivor of prison and e-carceration” James Kilgore asks, “Why are [electronic monitoring devices] tools of incarceration and punishment instead of vehicles for change?”
Unlike most other Maryland jurisdictions, in Baltimore, where Yolanda lives, pretrial home detention fees are not paid for by the city. This means that, while her trial was delayed and she was allowed to be released, the cost of her electronic monitoring quickly reached thousands of dollars—and even though the state determined she qualified for a public defender, she had to personally cover those expenses.
“I can’t afford home monitoring. My law bills? I can’t pay. It’s really a hardship trying to pay the home monitoring fee,” Yolanda said. “What am I going to do when nobody is there to help me? My dad’s on oxygen. His funds are exhausted.”
In 2021, criminal justice reform advocates in Maryland helped pass a state law that covered these fees for poor people in localities that did not pay for them, such as Baltimore City. Hundreds of people have successfully utilized the program since it went into effect in October 2021. That measure is set to expire in June of this year. During the legislative session which just ended, the legislature passed Senate Bill 0704, extending the program for 18 months. But the fate of this legislation remains uncertain, Senior Policy Advocate Christopher Dews of the Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF), a leading advocacy group working to reform pretrial detention, explained.
“If [the bill fails to become law] you’re going to have 400 Baltimoreans per month using this program that are just going to be left in the wind. They’re all gonna have to go back to just paying $500 a month that most of them cannot afford,” Dews told Battleground Baltimore. “All of this can be alleviated if we just extend the program.”
Maryland’s expansion of electronic pretrial monitoring is a temporary fix for crowded jails and a clogged criminal legal system, and it is a boon for private companies seeking to profit off the low-income communities of color who are disproportionately targeted by the criminal legal system.
“Privatized electronic monitoring agencies have siphoned millions of dollars, specifically out of lower income pockets,” Dews said. “It’s our job to eliminate barriers to employment, and it’s our job to decriminalize poverty. We don’t want to see people incarcerated because they can’t afford a fee.”
After languishing in prison for seven months and facing deteriorating health conditions, Yolanda was released into home detention with electronic monitoring in June of 2021—almost eight months after her arrest. That relative degree of freedom came with a price tag and created new ways to possibly incarcerate her. If she could not pay the $490 a month charged by the private, Baltimore County-based company Advantage Sentencing Alternative Programs (ASAP) to monitor her ankle bracelet, she would return to jail.
As Yolanda awaits her day in court, she is on the hook for thousands of dollars in fees and unable to earn a living to pay them. As a condition of her release she is only allowed to leave her home to receive medical care or legal advice—not to work.
“I had to lean on family members to help me,” Yolanda said. “If they stopped paying this bill, I’m truly doomed.”
Advocates say charging exorbitant fees for those unable to work can trap people in poverty and push them into debt: “Anecdotally, what we’re seeing is a lot of people are not being given the leeway to look for jobs or go to work,” BALT’s Blau said. “If you’re at home most hours of the day and not earning a wage, then you’re paying for your food, you’re paying your rent or mortgage on your house, and you have no income.”
Yolanda was forced to sell her personal belongings and continued to borrow money from family members to pay for the home monitoring, rent, food, and legal fees.
“Trying to pay home monitoring has put stress on me. My health has declined. I don’t want to go back,” Yolanda said. “It’s a hardship to absolutely go anywhere. You can’t work under any circumstances”
In October 2021, Yolanda’s lawyer connected her with Dews at JOTF, who helped her access financial relief under the 2021 Maryland law that paid home monitoring fees for those with low income. HB316 allocated $5 million from the American Rescue Plan to cover such fees for low income residents. The measure was the result of lobbying by a coalition of groups including JOTF, BALT, Out for Justice, and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.
“400 Baltimoreans per month since the program started have been using the program, so it’s a massive success,” Dews said. “Again, these persons have not been found guilty, they are awaiting their trial.”
A second primary provision of HB316 required Gov. Larry Hogan to appoint a working group to study the issue of pretrial detention in Maryland to come up with a long term solution. Hogan never did that, so advocates went back to Annapolis this 2022 legislative session to seek continued relief for the hundreds of residents like Yolanda who utilize the program.
Delegate Stephanie Smith and Senator Shelly Hettleman sponsored legislation to extend the program by 18 months and to again call on the governor to appoint a working group to study the issue. SB0704, Hettleman’s version of the bill was passed by both chambers of Maryland’s legislature in the final days of the 2022 General Assembly Session and now sits on the desk of Gov. Hogan.
Ending the program prematurely would be a “terrible shame,” Hettleman told Battleground Baltimore. “Number one, there’s still funding available to be able to continue the program,” Hettleman said. “I fundamentally believe people who are deemed to be safe in the community should be allowed to be released in the community pretrial and not be criminalized because they’re poor.”
Advocates became concerned when John P. Morrissey, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, objected to language in the bill that requires “Maryland’s Judiciary” to administer the program. Hettleman said while a longer term fix to the issue would need to involve other state agencies, she believes the judiciary will continue this function on a temporary basis.
“I would be surprised, shocked, disappointed if the judiciary would all of a sudden say now that they have the infrastructure in place… ‘Sorry, we can’t do this,’” Hettleman said.
Hogan has until May 30 to sign the bill into law, veto it, or take no action, which would allow the bill to become law without his signature.
There is also the issue of those whose income is too high for them to qualify for the state’s program but still can’t afford home detention fees. BALT has been covering home monitoring fees for 30 low-income clients that weren’t eligible for the state program. Since March 2020, BALT Legal has covered electronic monitoring fees for 234 clients. But later this month, on April 30, BALT Legal must end that program.
“We’re out of funds,” Blau said. “We can’t continue to pay.”
Todd Oppenheim, felony trial supervisor at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, told Battleground Baltimore that while the public defender’s office supports expanding pretrial release options, which include home detention, its privatization should be reconsidered.
“We’re not married to the idea of having these private monitoring agencies have people under their control, but it’s definitely better than being in a jail or prison,” Oppenheim said.
Dews stressed that with bail the majority of the money is returned to the accused after their case, while privatized pretrial home detention fees are lost forever:
“Unlike bail where you get that money back, you don’t get that money back [from privatized home detention],” Dews said.
Yolanda’s trial is currently scheduled for September 2022—nearly two years after she was arrested and nearly a year and a half since she was able to return home on electronic monitoring. As she waits to schedule her heart surgery in the upcoming days, she says she remains hopeful the program will be extended.
“I got to eat. What am I going to compromise? Do I buy two rolls of toilet paper or do I buy one? I try to stretch,” she said. “If they stopped the program, I can’t afford this home monitoring and trying to pay my rent and my bills. This is a real hardship.”