US judge from Prince George’s County: Pre-trial procedures could improve


A federal judge in Maryland on Tuesday chastised Prince George’s County officials, saying they should have a more efficient and transparent process to assess inmates who have been released from jail pending trial and that ” simple” changes could improve the system.

U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte made the comments as he weighed requests to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the court’s bond review process and the county’s bail program. The complaint was filed in July by people currently or previously detained at the Prince George’s County Jail.

The plaintiffs allege that they and potentially hundreds of others were unlawfully detained for weeks or months before their trial, even after judges ordered or authorized their release.

The county, leaders of its corrections department and 11 Prince George’s County judges who oversaw the plaintiff’s bail hearings are named as defendants.

Lawyers for the defendants argued in a hearing on Tuesday that the entire lawsuit should be dismissed, citing judicial immunity and saying a federal court lacks jurisdiction over the issues. Prosecuting individual judges is rare in litigation, largely because judges are covered by legal protections aimed at preserving judicial independence. But these protections also limit the public’s ability to hold judges directly accountable in court.

The judges ordered their release from prison. They were not released, according to the lawsuit.

Lawyers also argued that the claims in the lawsuit were “moot” because many of the plaintiffs have now been released from prison and they say no longer face harm.

The county also said the plaintiffs’ due process rights could not have been violated because a pretrial release program is not required under the US Constitution.

“Because prison offers this alternative potential for release, it is disconcerting that plaintiffs complain about it. The jail has no obligation to offer the service,” the county wrote in a footnote. “The familiar sayings of ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ and ‘Be careful what you ask for’ come to the fore in these circumstances.”

Meanwhile, there have been numerous calls for bail reform, both nationally and in Maryland, where courts have issued guidelines to judges on limiting their use of cash bail. Prince George prosecutors are also no longer recommending cash bail in bond hearings, a policy of the state attorney’s office.

But what has since happened, experts say, is a collapse of the system of alternatives to cash bail, like bail programs, which they say aren’t equipped to handle the extra workload. .

“You can still have a situation where you end cash bail or limit cash bail and a lot of people are still being held anyway,” said Michael Collins, senior director of government affairs at Color of Change. . “It’s not just about eliminating cash bail, it’s about moving beyond cash bail and thinking about pretrial reform more holistically.”

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Messitte did not immediately comment on the substance of the allegations in the lawsuit regarding bond hearings and the pre-trial program, saying his primary focus at this stage of the case was to determine “whether this court has anything to do with it.” TO DO”.

But he briefly told county prosecutors at the end of the hours-long hearing that many of the issues outlined in the lawsuit could be resolved with small changes to their bail system.

“It’s all sorts of simple things I hear,” Messitte said of the plaintiffs’ allegations about flaws in the bail program. “…I hope the county takes some of this to heart.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Maryland, alleges that during bond review hearings in the district and circuit courts of Prince George’s County, judges ordered, or at least allowed, those charged with crimes to be released from prison pending trial. But in the process, the suit says, those judges “abdicated their constitutional duty” and illegally relied on the county jail’s pretrial services program to determine what level of supervision people should receive — or whether they should be released at all.

Court watchers, with help from Fiona Apple, are fighting to maintain virtual access beyond the pandemic

The lawsuit alleges that those authorized by judges to be released before trial end up languishing in jail for weeks or months because pre-trial services never make decisions in cases and processes are opaque or bogged down in arrears.

The legal back and forth has rekindled old tensions between court and community watchdog groups that monitor bail proceedings in Prince George’s County, primarily Courtwatch PG – whose volunteers and supporters were in the courtroom. federal Greenbelt hearing on Tuesday afternoon.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys — Civil Rights Corps, WilmerHale Law Firm and the Georgetown University Law Center Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection — worked closely with public defenders and Courtwatch PG to formulate the lawsuit.

Courtwatch PG director Carmen Johnson said her volunteers were offended by the county’s claims in her court documents.

“It is troubling that the plaintiffs and the local public defender’s office did not informally approach the defendants to try to resolve their issues,” the county wrote. “Instead, they have assembled an army of volunteers, untrained in the law, to attend bond review hearings and make impassioned observations and complaints about them that have little or no legal significance… and then ambushed both the court and the county with this lawsuit.”

The lawsuit was “vexatious” and the volunteers were “at war with the system”, the county said.

Courtwatch PG volunteers say this characterization of their work stings and is inaccurate.

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For nearly three years, volunteer Courtwatch PG observers have observed daily bond hearings, meticulously documenting what transpires in each case and recording their findings in databases they use to identify patterns and issues at solve.

The program grew exponentially in the summer of 2020 as the pandemic and racial justice uprisings spurred many to action, and Courtwatch PG volunteers also began writing weekly accountability letters to public servants – lawmakers of the state, county officials, state attorney, public defender and the judiciary.

Many of those letters flagged issues with the bail review and pretrial release process dozens of times, court observers said. Time and time again, they said, officials ignored their concerns.

“We are not the enemy; we are not trying to make war. We come in peace,” Johnson said. “We didn’t ambush them about it. We’ve been writing pre-trial accountability letters for over a year. »

Its forensic observers, she said, receive training and are required to observe before they are officially allowed to start submitting data. Even then, court watchers meet in debriefing sessions to compare notes.

“It’s not just people outside the neighborhood watching the courts,” Johnson said. “We are professionals.”

Johnson, who was incarcerated, is a paralegal. His Courtwatch PG team includes retired lawyers, teachers, students, law students, former college professors with PhDs, community organizers and Grammy-winning musician Fiona Apple.

“They try to make us look like idiots. And we’re not,” Apple said in an interview. “We try to be good neighbours. That’s all we do.

Apple began volunteering with Courtwatch PG nearly two years ago and became the face of the group’s push last year during the Maryland state legislative session to pass a bill that would enshrine virtual access to the courts. The bill ultimately failed after the judiciary rejected it, but the effort highlighted a nationwide campaign by groups similar to Courtwatch PG to bring greater transparency and access to the courts.

“If they wanted transparency and accountability, they wouldn’t oppose it. They would work with us,” Apple said. “They don’t want to admit what they’ve done, because they don’t want to be forced to change. They have all the power, and they say we’re making war on them?


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