The Pretrial Release Project

November 2001 / Abell Reports / Criminal Justice and Addiction

A study of Maryland’s pretrial release and bail system.

Nearly 40 years ago, Congress transformed this nation’s federal pretrial release system. Recognizing that the use of money bail and dependence on bail bondsmen disadvantaged lower-income people, Congress concluded that a proper respect for law and order is jeopardized when the disposition of justice turns upon the financial status of the accused. The new federal system relied extensively on a pretrial release agency’s investigation and supervision and guaranteed legal representation to indigent defendants.

The federal system provided the model for legislating reform of Maryland’s pretrial release system. But it is a model only in theory, not in practice. Like its federal model, Maryland’s written pretrial release rules entitle most defendants to be released on the least onerous conditions. However, its practices do not follow its rules. Indigent defendants, most facing nonviolent, District Court offenses, are usually unrepresented by a lawyer at the bail stage. While Maryland judicial officers released half of arrestees on personal recognizance, they invariably ordered full financial bond for the remaining half. About 75,000 detainees regained their liberty pending trial in 1998 and 1999 by paying bondsmen a nonrefundable 10% fee. Collectively, Maryland’s annual bail bond revenue totaled between $42.5 million and $170 million and caused economic hardship to many families who paid bail with money designated for rent, food and utilities. Under Maryland’s pretrial release rules, the overwhelming majority of these detainees should have been offered less onerous alternatives and been released without bondsmen. This would, of course, not include individuals who pose a threat to public safety or who represent a flight risk.

The Abell Foundation funded the Pretrial Release Project (PRP) after the Maryland State Bar Association requested that the Maryland Court of Appeals authorize a study be undertaken to evaluate the entire bail review process. Chief Judge Robert M. Bell agreed and suggested that a comparative analysis [of Baltimore City] with other representative jurisdictions would be . . . helpful in that its findings would be more likely to lead to substantive changes in the bail and pretrial release system statewide. Thereafter, the Abell Foundation made funding available, launching the two-year Pretrial Release Project (PRP). The PRP Study is the culmination of this project.