Maryland lawmakers are scrambling to come up with money to continue paying for a pandemic-era program that’s been covering the cost of private home detention monitoring services for about 650 people charged with crimes who can’t afford them.

Legislators approved spending $5 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, in 2021 to pay for private home detention, which costs about $450 per month. The program was supposed to last until that money had been used up or through the end of this year.

In a letter dated on Feb. 13, the Administrative Office of the Courts reported that it had determined that the money for the program was “likely to be exhausted during the first quarter of 2024 due to a recent sudden influx of invoices.” The money ran out on Feb. 16.

Testifying before a Senate budget subcommittee on Thursday, John P. Morrissey, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, said the private home detention companies are supposed to send in invoices twice per month “but they don’t — and they haven’t — and there’s really no enforcement mechanism.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Morrissey said the judiciary unexpectedly received $600,000 in invoices during the first week of the month, which “sent the bells ringing.” The courts, he said, then got an additional chunk of bills, which put the total above $5 million.

He estimated that it would cost $2 million to cover the cost of private home detention for those who are currently on it through the program.

“I don’t have a solution as I sit here today,” Morrissey said.

In a statement, Melissa Rothstein, a spokesperson for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said the program has “allowed many clients to maintain employment, keep their families and housing intact, and save taxpayers millions of dollars in unnecessary and harmful detention costs without jeopardizing public safety.”

“We are working with our partners and remain eager to ensure that release options available to those with means are equally available to our clients and others who lack funds,” Rothstein said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Washington Post first reported about how money for the program had run out.

The dried-up funding alarmed Democratic leaders in Annapolis, who had expected the program to continue through the end of the year.

Leaders of the House of Delegates and the Senate said they’d work to figure out a solution in hopes that those already in the program wouldn’t be sent to jail.

Lawmakers could add money — if they can find it — into the current year’s budget, but that wouldn’t be available until the budget bills are passed and signed into law by Gov. Wes Moore, which likely would not be until mid-April.

That leaves two months during which 600-plus people would be in limbo, at risk of being incarcerated if they can’t pay for the home monitoring themselves.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“I have been working with Appropriations Chair [Ben] Barnes and Judiciary Chair [Luke] Clippinger on funding to ensure that those who are already part of the monitoring program don’t go to jail because they can’t afford to pay for their monitoring device,” House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said in a statement.

Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a budget subcommittee chair who grilled courts officials during Thursday’s hearing, said the issue is clearly a “hot potato.”

“No one seems to want to own it,” said Elfreth, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Elfreth said that if Maryland Judiciary officials had notified lawmakers earlier that money was running low, a solution could have been found to find money to continue the program for existing participants and to keep accepting new participants.

“If I were in their shoes, I probably would have notified our partners,” Elfreth said in an interview.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Democratic governor’s team wasn’t notified about the money running out until recently, his office said.

The Moore-Miller administration shares a “concern” about the program ending, spokesperson Carter Elliott IV said in a statement. The statement said the governor encourages the courts to work with lawmakers to continue the initiative.

“This is a one-time, federally funded program created during the pandemic, which was not forecasted to continue beyond what the initial federal funds provided,” Elliott said.

More From The Banner