Earlier this month, we released a quantitative report examining the last two years of data we have collected. Our volunteers observed, collected, and entered data from 3,645 Baltimore City Circuit Court bail review hearings throughout 2021 and 2022. Much of the information we gather is not available to the public anywhere else. It tells the story of a legal system with a lust for punishment.
The law concerning bail reviews instructs judges to impose the “least restrictive condition” to address potential flight risk and public safety concerns. Judges have a few pretrial conditions they can order. These conditions range from releasing defendants on their own recognizance (i.e. released without conditions beyond instructions to appear for court) to holding defendants without bond (i.e. keeping the person in a cage until their trial).
Of the hearings we observed in 2021 and 2022 (under former head prosecutor Marilyn Mosby), prosecutors requested someone be held without bond 78.7 percent of the time. This is over three times as often as all other options combined. The highest held-without-bond request rate in a single month was December 2021 at 93.0 percent. In the two-year period, prosecutors argued for either HWOB or electronic home monitoring — the two most restrictive options — in 90.7 percent of hearings.
Even more troubling is the cynical way prosecutors often use prior charges as evidence to argue for someone to be held without bond. Prosecutors often dropped charges against someone only to argue months or years later that those charges meant the person was too dangerous to be uncaged. In at least 430 of the hearings covered by our report, the charges used for that argument either a) had been dropped by their own office but not expunged, b) had not resulted in a conviction, or c) had been charges incurred when the person was a child, sometimes over a decade earlier.
We also observed the choices of 22 judges over this period. Overall, 53.7 percent of rulings resulted in an order of HWOB and another 31.1 percent of rulings resulted in the person being placed on electronic home monitoring. A mere 3.7 percent of hearings resulted in the legally innocent person being able to go home with no restrictions prior to their court appearance.
Eight judges — Jackson, Jones, Taylor, Hong, Peters, Dorsey, Schiffer, and Middleton – oversaw 89.9 percent of hearings. Judge Charles Dorsey ordered HWOB 78.9 percent of the time — the highest percentage of those eight.
Another focus of our observation has been the way the legal system handles children versus adults. Both prosecutors and judges chose to incarcerate children at alarming rates. Under current state law, some types of offenses result in the automatic charging of a child as an adult. However, the law does not require the State’s Attorney’s Office to pursue those charges or to oppose transferring the child back to the juvenile system. Advocates are currently urging state legislators to pass the Youth Equity and Safety Act, which would end the autocharging of children as adults. Maryland Youth Justice Coalition, a leader in that fight, notes that 81 percent of children charged as adults in Maryland are Black.
Throughout 2021 and 2022, prosecutors argued to hold children in adult jails six percentage points more often than adults (86.3 percent versus 77.3 percent). In the same period, judges ordered children held in adult jails 13 percentage points more often than adults (64.7 percent versus 51.7 percent). In other words, Baltimore City Circuit Court judges held children in the most restrictive possible conditions significantly more often than they imposed those conditions on adults. In fact, judges chose the least restrictive possible option for children only 1.2 percent of the time. The number for adults was 4.1 percent.
Here in Baltimore, the children appearing before judges in these bail reviews have a higher likelihood of being Black. This points to the dangerous and racist perceptions throughout our policing and legal systems that result in harsher treatment of children. These perceptions are fostered by politicians and mainstream media outlets. We reject the perception that Baltimore’s children are especially dangerous and insist that children be treated as children. We must examine the conditions we have created for our children rather than punish their responses to those conditions.
While the data collected by Baltimore Courtwatch and other courtwatchers around the country is vital to improving the public’s understanding of the realities of our carceral system, we want to emphasize that behind every number we present are human beings who are being held on accusations of committing crimes, and are simply asking to not be locked in a cage before they have even had a chance to present a defense. Their absence from our communities is felt by all of us.