Thursday, March 7, 2013

How to Save Your County Money…Use a Bail Bond Agent

If you are involved in the criminal justice system then you are probably aware of two of the most widely discussed challenges facing many counties and jurisdictions today, shrinking budgets and overcrowded jails.  While research has shown that jail populations are actually down for the third year in a row nationally, there are still many counties/jurisdictions around the country that are facing these two difficult issues.   In order for these counties/jurisdictions to figure out the most effective and long term solution to these problems, I believe that they need to answer two important questions.  First, who is currently in jail?  In other words, what type of defendants make up the pretrial population?  Second, what are the real costs associated with the pretrial process?   Is it the cost of incarceration or are there additional costs we should be focusing on?

Let’s start with pretrial populations.  If we are to truly understand why jails are crowded, we need to first understand who is in jail and why they are there.  I have talked about this in previous blog posts, but I thought it would be important to mention it again here.  Those in the pretrial services community believe the jails are crowded because those being held can’t afford to pay a bail bond agent.  In fact, they claim that anywhere from 60%-70% of those sitting in jail awaiting trial are there because they can’t afford a bail bond.  I am not sure where they get that statistic, but one thing that I do know is that people sitting in jail, are not there solely because they cannot afford a bail bond.  When someone is booked into a jail and given a “pretrial” status, they can fall into a number of different sub-classifications.  For example, here is a short list of these different types of defendants that make up these pretrial populations.  There are:

     - Defendants there on immigration holds….these defendants are not bailable
     - Defendants there awaiting transfer to another jail…these defendants are not bailable
     - Defendants there who have been arrested for a probation violation…these defendants are not
     - Defendants that have been determined by the judge to be too great of  a risk (flight and/or
       danger to community) to award bail

These are just a few of the types of defendants in the pretrial population.  As you can see, it is not just defendants who can’t afford a bail bond.  Additionally, through financing and payment plans, families are able to acquire the services of a bail agent more easily today than they have ever been able to previously.  What the criminal justice system needs is an in-depth study of who is in jail (what type of defendant, and why they are or aren’t able to secure release).  This research will show us what the real problem is and allow us to focus resources specifically on that issue.
The next issue is the cost of incarceration.  For as long as I can remember, the argument of the pretrial community has been that people who are being held pretrial cost taxpayers a lot of money.  I have seen a wide range of estimates ranging anywhere from $40-$90 a day.   And if it wasn’t for commercial bail, these people could be released through a pretrial services agency more readily and save the county these important dollars.  What the pretrial community forgets to include in this math equation of course, is the cost of their program to the community.  They might be saving money by releasing folks out of jail for FREE, but they are costing the county money by having a pretrial program in the first place. All the while, commercial bail costs the county nothing. That fact aside, I believe that there is a much bigger cost that is not being considered in this decision.  This cost is related to when a defendant who is released pretrial doesn’t show up for court.  This cost was brought to light in a compelling way in a recent independent research study done out of the University of Texas at Dallas.  This study looked at over 22,000 pretrial releases in Dallas County, Texas during 2008.  The study not only assessed the effectiveness of different types of releases, but more importantly assigned a cost to the county for every person who was released and didn’t show up for court.  That cost was determined to be over $1,780 per defendant. Taking that into consideration, it really begins to change the landscape of cost savings in the system.  No longer does the cost on the front end of the process need to be considered, but even more importantly now the cost on the back-end needs to be considered.  

Once you understand this, you can begin to see the importance of which form of release is utilized.  You want to make sure that defendants are let out in a timely manner, while at the same time you want to make sure that you let them out through the most effective form of release.   Well that form of release, hands down is commercial bail.  It has been proven time and time again by countless studies, including the recent University of Texas at Dallas study, to outperform all other forms of release.  So next time the county is trying contemplate letting a defendant out through pretrial services or a commercial bail bond agent, they should consider the cost of a jail bed on the front end, but even more importantly they absolutely should consider the more than $1,780 cost to the county on the backend if that defendant fails to appear for court.  In my opinion, there has never been a better piece of research available to stakeholders and decision makers to better understand the value and importance of the commercial bail industry and its effectiveness is saving costs in the criminal justice system.