As Opposition Mounts to Cash Bail in MD, Industry Wines and Dines
The Real News was there as protesters gathered at a high-priced steak house where the bail business plied politicians with food and liquor to stop reform efforts
TAYA GRAHAM: It’s another attempt to reform the criminal justice system that has met a big obstacle — money. Since Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh declared cash bail unconstitutional, advocates have pushed to eliminate bail in Maryland. But the bail bonds industry is pushing back.
Tonight they’re holding a swank dinner for the Judiciary Committee, a key body making decisions about bail reform, but The Real News is here to stake out the event and ask questions. I’m here with investigative reporter, Stephen Janis, to give us some background on where bail reform is in Maryland.
So, Stephen, can you tell us where we are in the process?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, obviously, since Brian Frosh’s report, there’s been a big push this year to get it done, to get rid of cash bail. He basically concluded that bail, cash bail, is unconstitutional. And of course, many advocates have said that bail is actually really making things worse for people, not really… achieving the goal, which is to make people show up for trial. It really has nothing to do with it.
If you look at the reports that have come out, they have said that, I think, 17,000 people were stuck in jail for bail that was minimal, maybe 50,000 people over the last five years. And then, of course, you had the Maryland Appeals Court adopt a new rule that said, when possible judges should actually not give bail to people who can’t afford it. So, there’s a big push.
But as you said, the bail industry is pushing back, and I think it’s one of those things where it does come down to money. There is a perception that money equals safety, and I think that’s one of the things that people are trying to dispel about bail. Bail doesn’t make you safer, to make keeping people in prison who are not guilty, or haven’t had a trial, and I think that’s where the big pivot comes, because we always kind of think that the more money we spend, the safer we are. And I think that’s what the bail bonds have been arguing.
So, we’re going to talk to some people, hopefully with the bail bonds industry, some advocates who are saying we should change the law.
STEPHEN JANIS: They’ve been trying to do bail reform for a couple of years. Now, you… we didn’t really know why it wasn’t happening, but then you came up with the incredible report that… what did your report show about money, and the legislative process of the bail industry?
JENNIFER BEVAN DANGEL: So, Common Cause Maryland, we always take a look at who’s spending money to lobby, what are the lobbyists doing in Annapolis? Well, last fall we decided to go one step further and look at some of these industries, and how they’re also impacting campaigns, by making donations to some of our connected legislators, particularly the chairs of the committees that they are in front of.
What was fascinating about the bail bonds industry giving — was not just the amount of it, which was fairly staggering –- we’re third in the nation, for a state where the bail bonds industry is donating to candidates, to parties, to try get their position out there. What was also staggering, was how much they’ve increased their giving, as this issue has gotten more heat.
In the last year, we saw a drastic uptick in donations, even though typically those levels of giving, waits until the election year itself.
STEPHEN JANIS: And this is going to some of the key people, like Bobby Zirkin, right? Some of the key people on the Judiciary Committee which could block these bills.
JENNIFER BEVAN DANGEL: The giving patterns that we saw certainly proved some truisms that we’ve always felt were happening in Annapolis, but now we have some numbers to back it up. Number one being, that your committee chairs are the ones that benefit the most from the industries that they oversee.
Zirkin, the Senate Committee chair, 13, 11%, sorry, 11% of his donations in the last election cycle, came from this industry. Vallario, the House Committee chair, very similar number, right around 11-13%, so, clearly a sizeable part of their giving — clearly a targeted effort to build relationships, to have an impact.
DELEGATE MICHAEL MALONE: I’m concerned about removing cash bail. America is sort of built on a capitalistic system, and one of the benefits of bail was it requires someone, a defendant, to have some skin in the game, and to be motivated to appear for court. And to make sure that the process moves forward, and that they get their day in court, and they make sure they show up for their day in court.
And part of the other value of being in court is, of course, the defendant is advised of their rights. And I’m concerned if we eliminate cash bail; it’s going to hamper the system, and that actually the judicial system moves slower, rather than faster.
STEPHEN JANIS: Now the bail industry is holding a pretty nice dinner up there. Was the food and the wine and the money they’re doing, influencing your decision at all?
DELEGATE MICHAEL MALONE: No, because I’m actually on my way home right now. So…
CROWD: (chanting) … end cash bail, freedom’s not for sale… End cash bail, freedom’s not for sale… End cash bail, freedom’s not for sale… End cash bail, freedom’s not for sale…
STEPHEN JANIS: What’s wrong with cash bail, from your perspective?
PAUL KEEGAN: Well, I’ve actually spent time behind bars for stupid things, and wasn’t able to raise bail. So, I had to spend a whole weekend there, and was released Monday morning on my own recognizance because the charges were dropped. But in the meantime, I spent 40 some odd hours there.
STEPHEN JANIS: Where was this? Was it Central Booking?
PAUL KEEGAN: Oh, no. This was up in New Hampshire many, many years ago. Happened before I got sober. But still means a lot, and there’s other ways to handle our prison population, and our offenders, and things, without being as unjust as we are.
STEPHEN JANIS: Now, how do you feel about the fact that the bail industry is holding this kind of shindig for…
PAUL KEEGAN: Oh, it’s ridiculous. I mean, you can’t get into that place for less than $70 to $100 a person. Two members of the Judiciary Committee combined, have over $100,000 in campaign contributions, from these people. It’s obviously the best government money can buy.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. You think their votes are for sale, then?
PAUL KEEGAN: Absolutely.
CRAIG JOHNSON: I’ve been incarcerated, and there were times where I could not raise bail. And also I seen people that could not raise bail, and sat in a jail cell for a month, waiting for their trial to come up. And then were found not guilty, or released, you know, or charges were dropped, so they sat there. A month of their life was taken away for nothing.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, we’re seeing… is this democracy in progress, when we’re seeing people here getting wined and dined, when they’re going to make a decision on people’s lives and freedom?
CRAIG JOHNSON: Well, I mean, that’s the way things are. You know, people, they get wined and dined, and they get persuaded, you know… to cast their votes in a certain direction.
WOMAN, PROTESTER: Poverty is not a crime…
MAN, PROTESTER: … Donald Trump…
WOMAN, PROTESTER: Poverty is not a crime…
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Annapolis, Maryland.