Monday, September 30, 2013
Cleaning up the Court of Appeals' Mess
Maryland's Court of Appeals sure did make a mess of things. It ruled that poor defendants must get free lawyers when they see commissioners to have their bail set. I have written more than once about why--despite what sounds like a 'good idea'--this ruling is woefully misguided.
If this was a decision without an economic impact, that would be one thing. However, if legislators try to fit this ruling into the current bail system, taxpayers will suffer huge financial consequences.
Right now District Court commissioners process defendants 24 hours a day, 365 days a week. They do this to give defendants the chance to get out of jail as quickly as possible, either by releasing them on their promise to come to court or by setting bail. Only those who can't make bail are then seen by judges on the next court day.
But if we now add free lawyers to the process, we have to staff every single booking center in the state with public defenders...24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Yikes! And the local jails will have to find room for these lawyers to meet with all arrested persons to find out if they are poor and then to attend the commissioner hearings.
What an economic and logistical nightmare. But as promised in my last blog, I have the solution. Maryland lawmakers should amend the law to make judges, and only judges, set bails.
You see, the rules for processing arrested persons were made by the Court of Appeals. It decided that defendants have to be seen within 24 hours. (Many states use 48 or 72 hours, though I like 24 hours.) And it decided that commissioners would do the dirty work of the court, sitting in jails and working around the clock. Now that is has found a flaw in the system, it should solve the problem
If Maryland lawmakers revoked the power of commissioners to set bails, judges would have to do it. And I guarantee they won't be sitting in little rooms in local jails 24-hours per day, 365 days a year. So we won't need to hire lawyers to do that, either.
Instead, bail determinations will be held in open court, either with the defendants present or through remote video hook-up. The Public Defender's Office is already funded for bail representation, and its lawyers will be readily available. No economic nightmare, and better representation for defendants.
And this plan has so many other advantages. Critics have long complained, with justification, that commissioners are not equipped to do what they are charged with doing. Determine probable cause? They are not trained lawyers. Advise defendants of their rights to representation? The Court of Appeals has ruled that the advice that commissioners give to defendants doesn't legally count. Advice only counts when judges give it. So let them give it.
The private defense bar should like this plan. It gives them a more realistic opportunity to represent clients at an earlier stage. And prosecutors can more easily and cost-effectively provide their input when bail-setting is done in open court.
The district court judges will finally earn their pay. Right now they are very cozy in their part-time jobs as glorified magistrates with little meaningful work to do. They review bails, advise defendants of rights, postpone cases, and put people on probation. Instead of getting away early every day for shopping or golf, they can set the bails.
And they will then have the direct responsibility for evaluating and improving Maryland's bail system, one that currently--and will continue under the Court of Appeals ruling--to discriminate against the poor. The commissioners who currently set the bails have little, if any, guidance on how to do it, and bails are wildly inconsistent. Judges only "review" bails that defendants can't post, and they use the commissioner's bails as a starting point to go up or down. If they had to set the baseline, they would have powerful motivation to devise a thoughtful and rational system that protects public safety while ensuring equal treatment for the poor. Instead of ordering other people to protect the rights of the poor, they would have to do it.
Will commissioners have to lose their jobs? Nope. Instead of setting the bails, they can be very useful in gathering information that will assist the judges in their decisions, such as gathering criminal records and verifying personal information. They could prepare lists of defendants who they recommend be released without posting bail, for judges to handle first and quickly.
What's the downside? Well, although this plan will save millions, agencies will still project their costs in a vacuum and grab for money, as usual. But judges and public attorneys working at the district court level are already underutilized. If the new system strains their resources, let them prove it with statistics, bench hours, and especially an independent audit.
More fundamentally, it would be totally premature to award anyone any money at the outset because we don't know what the system will look like. Once the General Assembly shifts the burden of setting bail to the judges, the Court of Appeals will have to make new rules. Lawmakers must resist the temptation to make the rules themselves. They will just make a new mess. Let the judges of Court of Appeals clean up the mess they made.
And if, while they figure out how to do that, defendants are committed to jail by commissioners without having representation, those judges can do what they would do to anyone else who failed to obey their orders: they can hold themselves in contempt.
Technical note for Maryland lawmakers:
1. Amend Criminal Procedure 5-201 by adding a new (a)(1) that state: "Notwithstanding any other law or rule, only a judge of the District Court or a Circuit Court of Maryland may determine the conditions of pretrial release." Renumber the current (a)(1) to (a)(2) and eliminate the words "district court commissioner."
2. Amend Courts & Judicial Proceedings to eliminate 2-607(2) and amend the language in (3).