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Officials from District of Columbia discuss pretrial reforms in Maryland

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ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — District of Columbia officials appeared before a Maryland commission on Monday to outline the benefits of making changes to the bail hearing process.

The Maryland commission is weighing how to reduce the burden on court commissioners who decide whether someone is detained. One of the methods is to use risk-assessment tools to incarcerate only people who are a danger to the community or a flight risk.

Spurgeon Kennedy, director of strategic development for District of Columbia's pretrial services, told the panel that risk-assessment tools have been effective in a variety of jurisdictions around the country, including his city.

"Thousands stay released without their release status being revoked and thousands remain arrest free," Kennedy said. "The No. 1 step to making sure that that happens is to make sure that you can access the risk of those arrestees correctly. If you don't assess risk quickly and accurately at the start of the process, you're lost."

Risk assessment tools look at common traits between defendants who skipped court dates or committed more crimes after being released from jail. Besides criminal history, they look at residence, employment status, education, drug use habits and mental illness.

Lawmakers debated using risk assessment tools earlier this year when they tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation to make pretrial reforms to address a ruling by Maryland's highest court. Some argued that such tools take too much control out of the hands of judges and that there could be potential bias against black defendants, saying blacks are statistically more likely to have prior arrests.

Kennedy, who emphasized that risk assessment tools are not robotic or automated processes, said he did not believe they were skewed against minorities, because racial disparities can be accounted for in the tools.

"I'm an advocate of risk assessment," Kennedy said. "I wouldn't be, as an African-American male, if I thought for a second that it discriminated against a certain population."

D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz, told the panel that risk assessment tools do not have to be costly or burdensome, and she said the judge still has the final say on whether someone is incarcerated.

Maryland lawmakers set aside $10 million in the state budget to help pay attorneys at initial bail hearings. The commission is looking at a longer-term solution to addressing the Maryland Court of Appeals ruling.

The Governor's Commission to Reform Maryland's Pretrial System has been tasked with issuing recommendations for reform to the governor by Dec. 1.

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