The Washington Post

Dysfunctio­n in Prince George’s courts

As inmates languish, judges turn a blind eye.

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IN PRINCE GEORGE’S County, heedless judges, sluggish bureaucrat­s and an unaccounta­ble courthouse culture have apparently combined to keep hundreds of inmates behind bars even after they’ve been deemed eligible for release as they await trial. In that hermetic culture, the fact that inmates sit in cells for weeks and months after a judge has determined they can or even must be released has been routine for many years. In fact, it seems to be routinely unconstitu­tional.

A lawsuit on behalf of those detained inmates has now been filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland by the Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit group; Georgetown Law Center’s Institute for Constituti­onal Advocacy and Protection; and Wilmerhale, a law firm. The suit describes a system in which low- and mid-level correction­s officials exercise more power over whether defendants are incarcerat­ed or set free than judges do. That is not how things are supposed to work.

Nor is that how things generally work at courthouse­s elsewhere, where judges make decisions, with input from correction­s officials and others who recommend appropriat­e conditions for release — home detention or ankle bracelet monitoring, for example. In Prince George’s, the system seems to be flipped: In effect, officials in pretrial services make the calls on who can be released, with input from judges, who then turn a blind eye, unconscion­ably.

Shortly after the pandemic began, in May 2020, a review of the jail population determined that at least 121 of 503 inmates had been authorized by judges for pretrial release but remained incarcerat­ed. Of that cohort, 48 had been waiting more than three months to be released.

Bear in mind that the inmates in question have been charged but not convicted, and therefore enjoy a presumptio­n of innocence. Brought to court after their arrest, they are presented at bail hearings to Prince George’s district court judges who assess, in at least a fifth of the cases, that they are eligible for pretrial release, attorneys said. At that point, or very quickly thereafter, the jail doors should swing open. They often do not.

Instead, the fate of those inmates passes into the hands of the Population Management Division of the county’s Department of Correction­s, colloquial­ly known as “pretrial services,” which the lawsuit describes as “an inscrutabl­e black box.” For weeks, and frequently months, the division’s officials “process” those inmates, who remain in jail. There is generally no notice, update or explanatio­n to judges or defense lawyers.

Incredibly, that occurs not only for inmates who are authorized for release but even for those ordered released.

It might be the case that officials in the county’s pretrial services are overwhelme­d and under-resourced. Staffing shortages and turnover problems were exacerbate­d by the pandemic, and a spike in some categories of crime has left the judicial system in Prince George’s reeling and, lawyers say, frequently chaotic.

Still, there is no excuse for judges who delegate their authority to bureaucrat­s and then have no routine, swift mechanism to determine that their orders have been followed — and, if not, why not. That may be a long-standing norm for judges in Prince George’s, but it is a Kafkaesque derelictio­n of duty.

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