Inside Baltimore’s Outrageous Bail System
TRNN speaks to bail lobby insiders and those working to abolish it altogether
ANGEL ELLIOTT, TRNN: I’m Angel Elliott for the Real News Network in Baltimore.
SPEAKER: After he got locked up I really couldn’t do too much of anything. The bills started falling apart. I couldn’t pay the rent, and my lights was turned off. I had to drop out of school. That’s $18,000 it cost me.
ELLIOTT: Bail. It was once a means to an end. A way to ensure the defendant would appear in court. But in cities like Baltimore and all across the country, it’s evolved into something entirely different.
SPEAKER: They’re more punitive than serving their purpose, which is to ensure that a suspect or a defendant appears in court and make sure he’s not a flight risk or a risk to public safety.
ELLIOTT: The system is coming under fire for trapping the poor behind bars before they even get to see a judge, forcing them to accept guilty pleas just so they can be released.
The system is being backed by a powerful lobby that is resisting calls for reform. Excessive bails and burdensome costs have transformed it into what some say is a form of pre-punishment. A system that turns the constitutional right to free trial into a one-way ticket to poverty.
PAUL DEWOLFE: They can sue you and take everything you got, and that’s scary.
ELLIOTT: Paul DeWolfe is the head of the Maryland Public Defender’s Office he wrote the report on reforming the bail system under former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley’s administration.
DEWOLFE: Part of the practice, part of the culture in Baltimore and throughout Maryland, to treat poor people differently. I believe that. And so the amount of bail put on someone that is poor and doesn’t have resources is really to keep them in jail.
ELLIOTT: Baltimore’s bail system received international attention after the Freddie Gray uprising. Many accused rioters faced higher bails than the police officers charged with killing Freddie Gray, even with no criminal background. Including Greg Butler, who faced a no bail, and then a $400,000 bail for destruction of property.
GREG BUTLER: So for me and a few of the other rioters sitting over there with $300,000 and $400,000 bails, you know what I mean, it’s right up the alley of the system. It was not designed–it’s not designed to work for us anyway, you know what I’m saying?
ELLIOTT: You don’t have to guess who disproportionately has to pay high bail to gain their freedom. You can look at the latest headlines to find that answer. Those unable to meet bail remain trapped behind bars.
SPEAKER: They place you on these high bails, and then, you know, you’re facing these charges that they know you’re not going to be able to dispose of for about six to eight months. And by the time you’re really at a position where you can defend yourself, you’re screaming uncle. And they’ll offer you some little plea deal to get out with time served, but here, we’re going to saddle you with this felony now.
SPEAKER: So by the time you actually do get to trial, the judge is offering you time served just to get you out, and you’re going to take it.
ELLIOTT: And that decision will last a lifetime.
SPEAKER: You go home with that felony on your record, whether you serve any more time, or you know, you’re still going home with a felony on your record. And that’s the worst part.
ELLIOTT: The system can also trap those that are held with much smaller bail. According to the Baltimore Sun, of the approximately 3,000 people in pre-trial detention in Baltimore, up to 200 are stuck in jail with a bail of only $500.
This is Barry Udoff, the manager of Fred Frank’s Bail Bonds, the largest bail bond provider in Maryland.
BARRY UDOFF: If you’re in jail on a $500 bail and you can’t get out, you can’t raise $50 to get out, there’s normally a reason for it. It’s normally your family doesn’t want you out.
ELLIOTT: The net effect is a system that preys on the poor and treats those charged with a crime as if they’re already guilty. Even the state concluded the system was antiquated and usury. In this report on bail reform, a special task force recommended ending bail altogether for low-level crimes. And yet, the legislature failed to act. Why does this seemingly exploitative system not only persist but thrive? One reason: lobbying and influence.
UDOFF: I guess I’m sort of the face of the bail bond industry in Maryland, because I’ve been doing it for so long.
ELLIOTT: Barry Udoff is the Maryland industry’s bullhorn, a career bail bondsman who spends money and time lobbying to keep the current bail system in place.
UDOFF: And it’s to help pass laws that are favorable to not only the bondsmen but to help protect public safety. We know what’s going on in the district court systems, and the other systems around the state.
ELLIOTT: Head Maryland public defender Wolfe says efforts by the likes of Udoff have prevented badly-needed reform.
DEWOLFE: It’s a multi-million dollar industry. It’s a very profitable industry. And just by the fact that there has been 10, 15, 20 years of studies and task forces and reports and white papers on what bail reform looks like, nothing has been done to reform. And I suspect a large part of that is because of the power of the, of the bail bond industry.
ELLIOTT: But instead of passing laws to lessen the burden, the state has actually made it harder for bail companies to work with the poor. In 2013 they passed Maryland Code 27-216, a law requiring all defendants to pay the bail companies’ full approved rate, as outlined by the Maryland Insurance Administration.
UDOFF: We do go after people that don’t pay the bill when they’re supposed to, or the way they’re supposed to, because in Maryland bail bondsmen were surety bail bondsmen. That’s bondsmen that use an insurance company’s paper to underwrite their bonds. Must charge by law 10 percent, and they must do every–make every effort possible to collect the full 10 percent. So we do that.
ELLIOTT: Big corporations are also profiting from the bail system. They’re able to offer a very competitive 1 percent fee. Defense attorney J. Wyndal Gordon says the 1 percent fee can have lasting consequences if you miss the payments.
J. WYNDAL GORDON: People would put up, you know, use their homes to kind of back or guarantee a bail. And you know, all kinds of seedy things have occurred because these bails are so high. And it leaves the poor to be victimized one more time.
ELLIOTT: But Udoff argues bail bonds have to ensure payment just like any other business.
UDOFF: It’s like any other form of credit. When you buy a car, or whatever you buy, you promise to pay for, and you don’t pay, the person that you took the credit with is going to come after you to get paid.
DEWOLFE: So you’ve heard about the bondsman, the bond for people during the uprising of being as much as $450,000 or $500,000. Well, if a bondsman takes 1 percent of that, the family would have to come up with $5,000. but the family would still owe the bail bondsman $45,000, which they would have to pay over a period of time. And we’ve heard stories of people paying bondsmen for years for cases that have been dropped.
ELLIOTT: Some cities and states are considering reforming their bail systems. Washington, DC, is decades ahead of the curve. They eliminated the cash bail system two decades ago.
DEWOLFE: They’re released on what’s called unsecured bond, in which they just sign that they promised to show up for court. And then they get to be released. A certain percentage of people are held, and it’s called preventive detention.
ELLIOTT: And just this past summer in New York City, officials announced a plan to release thousands of low-level, non-violent offenders under court supervision instead of requiring them to make bail. It remains to be seen if change is coming to Maryland.
For the Real News Network, I’m Angel Elliott.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.