Panel explores pretrial legal system

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Students and scholars from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, University of Baltimore Law, and Morgan State University packed the Ceremonial Courtroom on January 18 for a panel discussion on Baltimore’s pretrial legal system. 

Hosted by the Maryland Law Review, the event featured Maryland Carey Law Professor Doug Colbert and Professor Colin Starger from UBalt Law, discussing their new Maryland Law Review article, “A Butterfly in COVID: Structural Racism and Baltimore’s Pretrial Legal System.” Also joining the conversation were Dr. Lawrence T. Brown, Morgan State University scholar and author of The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America, whose work Colbert and Starger evoke in the article, and Associate Professor Maneka Sinha, director of Maryland Carey Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic. 

“When our schools come together, the resulting scholarship can be truly impactful for our city,” said Luca Artista ’23, editor-in-chief of the Maryland Law Review, referring both to the event and to the team of students from both law schools who assisted Colbert and Starger with their research.  

In summer 2020, the co-authors studied Baltimore’s pretrial legal system while attending more than 500 pretrial hearings. They found that nearly 62% of detainees were held without bail and sent “back to jail indefinitely despite the pandemic and despite their legal presumption of innocence.” The collaborators then mapped the addresses and Community Statistical Areas of the defendants in the study, revealing the “Black Butterfly” pattern Brown discusses in his book, with dots concentrated in those Black neighborhoods in Baltimore that are also areas of concentrated poverty.   

“Having engaged in a series of reform efforts the past 25 years,” said Colbert, “the Black Butterfly data confirmed the reality of systemic incarceration of detainees based upon their race and residence.”   

Colbert and Starger argue in the article that a failure to deliver promised reforms to Baltimore’s pretrial legal system, “represents a larger triumph of structural racism and that nothing short of radical transformation of the body politic will end such systemic racism.”  

Brown provided context for the assemblage in his keynote, sketching out the history of systemic racism in Baltimore, not just in the criminal legal system but also baked into policies around education, housing, transportation, and banking dating back to slavery. The Morgan State University scholar wound up his address with a call for what W.E.B. Du Bois called, “abolition democracy”—building new systems from the ground up that would provide equal treatment and opportunity for all. 

“I was honored to speak about the origins of the Black Butterfly so strikingly depicted in Professors Colbert's and Starger's paper,” said Brown after the event. “Baltimore started out as a city with an economy driven by slavers and slave traders. Then in 1910, Baltimore became the first city to legalize urban apartheid. The only way for Baltimore to rise is to dismantle urban apartheid and build the Du Boisian vision of the abolition democracy.” 

In her remarks, Maryland Carey Law Dean Renée McDonald Hutchins acknowledged that a diversity of opinions exist on the topic of Baltimore’s pretrial legal system. She went on to commend the authors for their work in elevating the conversation. “We encourage leaders across the state to engage meaningfully with these findings,” said Hutchins, “as we work to improve our criminal legal systems.” 

If you wish to view the panel discussion, visit the recording.