A Misdemeanor and No Priors, Why Was Money Bail Imposed?
A few years ago, one of my family members was arrested. The arrest couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the family financially. My relative was arrested in Baltimore County, Maryland. We had to go to a bail bondsman and could afford to pay only a tenth of the bond, which shows how far short we were from the full bond amount.
Never having known any family who were arrested, I’ve never been compelled to think seriously about the concept of bail. I wondered why my relative, with a misdemeanor charge and no prior arrest history, was placed on financial bail. Considering there was a pretrial services agency in his city, why wasn’t pretrial supervision an option for release? This personal experience fueled my research for this article.
As employees of PSA, we are aware of our Agency’s history and that Washington, DC, had has pretrial services for more than 50 years. However, pretrial release has not been available for that long in other areas of the country. DC's bail reform work started in 1963 as part of the DC Bail Project and the DC Bail Agency, PSA's predecessor, was created in 1967. Nearby Frederick County, MD, did not get started with a pretrial program until 1993. As recently as 2012, a pretrial pilot program was started in New Orleans – It has been met with resistance and doubt.
Across many publications, there is praise for pretrial services as offering a superior alternative to commercial bail bonds, yet the use of commercial bail prevails across the nation. This made me curious to know if there was something different about the DC Bail law that was not evident in the bail laws where my relative was arrested. So I looked and I found it.
The section of the DC bail law that has profound impact is that it is illegal for judicial officers to impose financial conditions for the intention of providing safety to the community or assurance of return to court.
No jurisdiction wants overcrowded jails. However, to let out detainees, money could no longer be the measuring stick to make that choice. Other means would have to be used, which led to a greater utilization of pretrial services. Without that addition to DC’s bail law, our agency ultimately would have fewer employees, less funding and perhaps as a matter of resources, less effectiveness.
My research, which is quite limited considering the wealth of research available on this topic, left me with a greater appreciation of the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia. DC surely has a unique structure to its bail law that has allowed for our agency to be as effective as it is and in large part, it is our effectiveness by which the criminal justice community will assess the value of the bail law we work under.
It’s good to know that there are reform efforts underway in Maryland, including the recommendation from a task force to end the practice of commercial surety in the state. Perhaps there will be a day when no matter what state an arrest takes place, an arrestee with the background of my relative will be offered a pretrial release option that does not involve a financial bond.
The PSA Writers Bureau is a creative forum for employees to write about their experiences at PSA from a personal perspective. All employees are invited to submit articles.