Zina Makar, Lawyer, Attacks Baltimore’s Bail Review System

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Zina Makar (Photo by Sean Yoes)

At a habeas corpus (a legal action that seeks relief for detainees unlawfully imprisoned) hearing on Sept. 22 for the Baltimore City Circuit Court began at 8:30 and by 8:45 the judge already seems to be in a rather surly mood.

“This is unacceptable,” he says to a lawyer from the State’s Attorney’s Office. “When you indict someone you’ve got to be ready to go the next day.”

Moments later, when it’s attorney Zina Makar’s turn before the judge, his attitude continues to deteriorate, which isn’t good news for Makar or her two clients.

The young attorney is an Open Society Institute Fellow, who works with the Public Defender’s office. Makar graduated from University of Maryland law school in 2014.

The cases of the two young Black men she is fighting for are going to be postponed again and they will remain in jail because of a miscommunication between the Public Defender’s office and the Circuit Court.

They have familiar yet, disparate back stories. The 19-year old (charged with a sex crime, although allegedly there was no physical contact made with the victim) had never been arrested, graduated from high school and was on his way to college and he’s been held without bail since April 16.

The 27-year old (charged with gun possession) does have prior charges and he has been held on $500,000 bail since July 16. The common thread between the two is they are both indigent. In fact, all of her clients are either indigent or transient.

Makar says in her capacity as an Open Society Institute Fellow working with the Public Defender’s office all of her clients this year, which number in the hundreds, have been Black.

“We’re looking to attack several issues within the context of bail reform…one being the standard judges use when denying bail,” she says while sitting outside of the courthouse.  “A lot of times they just look at the nature of the allegations and we’re just so encompassed in this Baltimore City, arresting, jail system that we’re just like, `Okay, he’s being charged with possession of a handgun, he’s obviously dangerous,’” she adds.

Her assertions resurrect the ubiquitous specter of the, “zero tolerance,” policing policy enacted by former mayor Martin O’Malley and kept in place for most of the tenure of his successor Sheila Dixon, which led to the arrest of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Black men from the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s.

According to the Justice Policy Institute a non-profit, research and public policy organization focused on reducing incarceration, the vast majority of people currently incarcerated in Baltimore City are Black and poor.

“The state is keeping [people] in jail because [they] are poor…we’re here to make sure their liberty is not infringed upon and they be given the least restrictive conditions to pretrial release,” Makar said.

During the uprising in April, following the funeral of Freddie Gray, hundreds of people — the vast majority young Black men — were arrested and many were held without being charged. Makar, with the help of others, wrote and filed 82 writs of habeas corpus for imprisoned protesters. Subsequently, 101 of the 250 arrested were released.

“We actually have to make sure that there’s some harmony between the complaining witness’ safety and the individual’s liberty who is being accused,” Makar says.

Sean Yoes is a senior contributor with the AFRO and host and executive producer of, “First Edition,” which airs Monday through Friday, 5-7 pm on WEAA, 88.9.