Reviews | Prince George’s County judges turn a blind eye to inmates

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In Prince George’s County, Maryland, reckless judges, slow-moving bureaucrats and an irresponsible courthouse culture apparently combined to keep hundreds of inmates behind bars even after they were deemed eligible for release pending trial. In this hermetic culture, inmates sitting in cells for weeks and months after a judge determines they can or even should be released has been commonplace for many years. In fact, it appears to be consistently unconstitutional.

A lawsuit on behalf of these detained detainees has now been filed in the US District Court in Maryland by the Civil Rights Corps, a non-profit group; the Institute for Constitutional Defense and Protection at the Georgetown Law Center; and WilmerHale, a law firm. The lawsuit describes a system in which lower and mid-level corrections officials wield more power than judges over the incarceration or release of defendants. That’s not how things are supposed to work.

That’s also not how things generally work in courthouses elsewhere, where judges make decisions, with input from corrections officials and others who recommend appropriate conditions for release – the house arrest or ankle bracelet monitoring, for example. In Prince George, the system seems to be reversed: in effect, pre-trial officials decide who can be released, with input from the judges, who then turn a blind eye, unreasonably.

Shortly after the start of the pandemic, in May 2020, a review of the prison population determined that at least 121 of the 503 inmates had been granted pre-trial release by judges but remained incarcerated. Of this cohort, 48 had waited more than three months to be released.

It should be remembered that the detainees in question have been charged but not convicted, and therefore benefit from a presumption of innocence. Brought to justice after their arrest, they are presented at bail hearings to the judges of the Prince George District Court who assess, in at least a fifth of the cases, that they are eligible for provisional release, lawyers said. At that time, or very soon after, the prison doors should open. Often this is not the case.

Instead, the fate of these inmates passes through the hands of the County Department of Corrections’ Population Management Division, colloquially known as “pretrial services,” which the lawsuit describes as ” an impenetrable black box. For weeks, and often months, division officials “process” these inmates, who remain in prison. There are generally no notices, updates or explanations to judges or defense attorneys.

Incredibly, this happens not only for inmates whose release is authorized, but even for those order published.

County enforcement officials may be overstretched and under-resourced. Staffing shortages and turnover issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and a spike in some crime categories has left Prince George’s justice system reeling and, lawyers say, often chaotic.

Yet there is no excuse for judges who delegate their authority to bureaucrats and then have no routine and quick mechanism to determine that their orders have been followed – and, if not, why not. That may be a long-standing norm for Prince George judges, but it’s a Kafka-esque lapse.

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