Baltimore Courtwatch: What we do, how we do it, and why we do it

Baltimore Courtwatch is a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization that began observing Baltimore City Circuit Court bail reviews at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak back in April 2020 and continues to this day.

We started this project because the courtrooms that exist in the popular imagination and the rights that people are told they have, do not in any meaningful way exist in real life. Bail review is one of the places this is most stark. A bail review hearing occurs when the pretrial detention status of the defendant gets re-examined by the defense counsel, the prosecutors, pretrial services, and a judge. Ultimately, the judge decides if the detention status changes or stays the same. For example, the judge may decide that the person is to stay in jail until their trial.

Baltimore Courtwatch volunteers call into the bail hearings on the conference call line that is open to the public. The observers take written notes in real time, as any recording of the hearing is illegal in the state of Maryland. The notes are collected, further research is conducted by querying within Maryland Judiciary Case Search, (MJCS) and all information is entered into a form that funnels entries into a main spreadsheet. Quantitative analysis is conducted from there.

During the hearing, the volunteers collect specific data points and transcribe as much of the attorneys’ arguments and judges’ statements as possible. The case number is the most critical piece to record as it can be used to collect more information from MJCS, such as some demographic data and specific charges in a case. Two data points that cannot be found in Case Search though, and what can only be learned by observing the hearing, is what the prosecutors for the State request regarding pretrial detention status and what the Office of Pretrial Services recommends. Is the State asking for a person to be held in jail or to be released to the safety of their own home? Observing the actual bail hearing is also one of the only ways data on Electronic Monitoring can be collected.

We use the findings for many conversations and actions. For example, the data can be used to determine if an elected official is following through on their stated commitments to the public. We do all of this to promote transparency, accountability, and fairness in the treatment of defendants and victims within the criminal justice system in Baltimore City—shining a light in the dark corners of Baltimore City’s courts.

Every day, we witness human beings (referred to as “defendants”) being subjected to violence and harm in our “criminal justice” system. We reject this entire white supremacist, violent, punitive system as any version of “justice” and we fight for a world where harm in our community is actually addressed and not multiplied. We wish to see a world with less harm and Baltimore City Circuit Court hearings and trials are causing more harm.

The primary target of this violence are our Black neighbors and we condemn this system which denies their humanity. We have witnessed families torn asunder, parents told that having been arrested means they don’t love their children, and children assumed to be irredeemable monsters. We have witnessed state’s attorneys argue that people are “a danger to the community” who must be held pre-trial, only to eventually drop the charges.

These examples are not aberrations. They are commonplace. We hope you can join us in taking action by unveiling the realities to the broader public. We encourage you to use the data, in the same way we do—to help shape how you look at those in power.

Held Without Bond

To provide an accurate sense of how courts actually operate, Courtwatch analyzed its data based on the 684 hearings from the first six months of 2022 that we observed. We found:

In the first six months of 2022, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office requested that the defendant be held without bond 85.1% of the time; be sent home on electronic monitoring 8.9% of the time; be released on their own recognizance (allowed to go home without bail) 0.6% of the time; and be given another option (such as a postponement of a trial ) 5.4% of the time.

In the first six months of 2022, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judges ordered that the defendant be held without bond 58.2 percent of the time; be sent home on electronic monitoring 32.3 percent of the time; be released on their own recognizance (allowed to go home without bail) 0.7 percent of the time; and be given another option (such as postponement) 8.8 percent of the time.

In the first six months of 2022, Courtwatch observed 123 bail hearings for children (someone under 18 years old) charged as an adult. At those hearings, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office asked for a child being charged as an adult to be held in jail until trial 91.1% of the time. And judges ordered that a child charged as an adult be held in jail until trial 75% of the time.

Read more about Baltimore Courtwatch.