Today brings more evidence on something I’ve been advocating for years: bail reform. In our criminal justice system, the setting of bail is one of the key moments in a criminal case. Make bail, things go down one road. Get locked up for more than a day or two, things go down another, much darker road. The fact that school stark differences in outcome arise from lack of ability to pay for bail is shocking and immoral.
For the past several years, the General Assembly has been locked in a titanic struggle over reforming bail. The bail bond industry, needless to say, is very lucrative and has no interest in being put out of business. Despite a court ruling that our current system failed to provide constitutionally adequate protections, we’ve done little to change the system.
Nothing much has changed since 2015, and the two biggest skeptics in the legislature are the respective chairs of the Senate and House committees, Bobby Zirkin and Joe Vallario.
Today comes new information that should shock precisely nobody. According to Common Cause and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Maryland ranks first in the country in donations from the bail bond industry between 2011-14, ahead of much larger states like Texas, Florida and California, a total of over $168,000. Senator Zirkin took in $21,000 of that money alone. For the recently completed year of 2016, an additional $87,000 poured in to Maryland elected officials, with Zirkin again leading the way with $21,000, this time in a single year.
The bail bond industry poured $87,000 into the campaign coffers of Maryland politicians in 2016, according to a report released Wednesday by Common Cause Maryland.
The influx of donations — which Common Cause said was significantly larger than in previous years — came as the General Assembly prepared to consider whether to alter or eliminate cash bail for most poor defendants.
The largest portion of the 2016 contributions, $21,000, went to Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. That panel will play a key role in deciding the fate of the state’s money-based bail system. Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the report shows how “special interests seek special influence in Maryland.”
Zirkin said Wednesday that the campaign contributions from the bail bond industry represent a small fraction of the $483,000 in his campaign account. The money, he said, has “zero to do with how I vote on bills.”
“I hope people contribute to me because when they look at the whole picture they respect me as a legislator, and they respect that I make decisions based on what is the best public policy,” he said. “And if they don’t, then they shouldn’t contribute to me.”
Zirkin said he is in favor of reforming the bail system, and believes the state needs more pretrial services, including drug and mental-health treatment.
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Maryland politicians received more from the bail bonds industry between 2011 and 2014 than their counterparts across the country. The advocacy group said Maryland took in $168,166, ahead of second-place California ($114,875) and third-place Texas ($78,005).
At least we won’t have to listen to Governor Larry Hogan nag and scold on this one.
The Common Cause report says that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) took in $11,300 from the bail bond industry in 2016, the second-highest total after Zirkin. Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) followed, with $6,000.
Add this to the list of reasons why progressive Democrats should get behind a real reform agenda. Thousands of people languish in jail not because they’ve been convicted, but because they didn’t have the money to make bail. This is an antiquated and outdated system that needs to go, and all the campaign donations in the world won’t change that basic fact. Regardless of the reality, the appearance of two committee chairs being at the beck and call of a sleazy industry and bottling up reform legislation for over half a decade now is a terrible one.