We are writing this as the nation prepares to celebrate July Fourth. Once again, we expect endless propaganda about America’s unique and exceptional place in history as a beacon of freedom. These stories about freedom must always be met with the question: “freedom for whom?” With that in mind, we offer some of our courtwatching observations. We hope that by providing these brief stories of the people caught in our carceral system designed to imprison and deprive freedom, we will at least not forget them.
Throughout May, Baltimore Courtwatch volunteers observed 43 Baltimore City Circuit Court bail review hearings. These hearings were presided over by Judge Jennifer Schiffer, Judge Christopher Panos, and Judge Kendra Ausby. A bail review hearing occurs when the pretrial detention status of the defendant gets reexamined by the defense counsel, the prosecutors, pretrial services, and a judge. Ultimately, the judge decides if the detention status changes or stays the same.
In 74.4% of those hearings, assistant state’s attorneys argued the judge should order the accused person to stay locked in a cage until their trial. Another 11.6% of the time, the ASAs argued the judge should order electronic home monitoring. In the end, 41.9% of hearings resulted in a judge ordering the person held without bond, and 32.6% resulted in a judge ordering electronic home monitoring. While we can learn from data, we started this project to look at the people behind those numbers.
In one case, we heard about a person who was stopped by police for wearing multiple layers of clothing. Despite the obvious issues with stopping people for such trivial reasons, the process of a bail review prioritizes the charges and statement of probable cause even if the defense points out the police officer acted illegally. Here, when the defense attorney pointed out that the stop was not proper, Ausby’s response was that, for bail reviews, the court relies on the result and not how the result was reached. The result of this bail review was this person was held without bond while awaiting trial.
Speaking of clothing, we also heard a case involving an 18- year-old chased by police after they noticed a “hoodie was tied around his waist.” The officer chased him with a weapon drawn. This occurred roughly three weeks before Officer Cedric Elleby chased and shot a teen in the back. The same phrase (“characteristics of an armed person”) that was used by police to justify Elleby shooting a minor teenager was used by Assistant State’s Attorney Alison Rajk in this bail review hearing to justify the chase.
We also heard a trans woman facing eviction, and lamenting that the state was using old instances of not appearing for traffic court to hold her longer. At the time of the hearing, she had already been locked in a men’s prison for over a month.
Another hearing involved a person with a serious medical condition. This person had recently watched another incarcerated person with the same medical condition die in front of them. They were worried the same would happen to them due to inadequate medical care available in detention. Schiffer ordered this person held without bond before hearing any argument from the state and after only a brief argument from the defense.
Next, State’s Attorney Ivan Bates recently announced that his office will focus on low-level offenses like dirt bike riding. City leadership, including now-departed Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, insisted this policy change will not lead to mass incarceration. We hope that the case below will illustrate what the state’s attorney’s policy will actually entail based on how they currently handle such cases.
On May 23, the Baltimore Police Department announced that their dirt bike enforcement initiative throughout April had led to the arrest of 11 people and charges for 17 others. Our observers heard one of these cases as it worked through the system to a circuit court bail review hearing. This case involved a single father of a young child. Even after being held for over a month for a crime with a maximum sentence of 90 days, and despite body camera footage contradicting elements of the arresting officer’s account, Assistant State’s Attorney Ray Clark argued for this person to be held without bond.
It must be emphasized that none of these people have yet had the opportunity to defend themselves in court from accusations by one of the most corrupt police departments in the country. And as Ausby alluded to in the first case, the manner of the arrests and any constitutional issues are irrelevant in these bail hearings. All these people were locked up for at least a few weeks, and many of them will still be sitting in cages this July Fourth. The prison-industrial complex is a window into America’s actual values: violence, cruelty, and hypocrisy. We insist that any talk of ‘freedom’ while caging human beings on stolen land is a farce. May we recommit ourselves to working towards ending that farce.
Baltimore Courtwatch is made up of Baltimore citizens who watch court proceedings and report what they see in order to hold court actors accountable and end the injustice of the criminal legal system. Learn more about them at baltimorecourtwatch.org.