Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Buildings, Contracts and Bail Bonds: Does Your County "Insure" Everything but Public Safety

One of the things that people understand least about the commercial bail bond industry is that it is a segment of the insurance industry.  Much like any auto, home or health insurance company, in most states, bail bond insurance companies and their agents are regulated and licensed by the state’s Department of Insurance.  This is because a bail bond is in essence an insurance policy.  It is a policy taken out by a defendant’s family (in most situations) that guarantees the appearance of the defendant in court.  If the defendant fails to appear, the policy ultimately goes into a “claim” status and the state or local jurisdiction is paid the amount of the policy, which is the full amount of the bond.  The insurance agent in this simple transaction is the bail bond agent.  Pretty straight forward stuff if you think about it.

The bail industry is part of a larger group of insurers called commercial sureties.  These are insurance companies that provide unique types of policies (surety bonds) that guarantee the performance of something.  The most common is a policy or bond that a company or individual gets to ensure performance in accordance with the conditions of a contract.  For example, a construction bond guarantees that a builder will complete a project in accordance with the terms or the original agreement.  There are literally hundreds of different types of surety bonds that sureties underwrite at the state and local level every day.  As I mentioned earlier, bail bonds are a surety product and fall into this category of insurance.

Now, most county and state governments are required by statute to obtain a surety performance bond in pretty much any and every activity they are involved with when it comes to spending tax dollars. This includes hiring a contractor or vendor, building a highway, tearing down an old building, revitalizing a neighborhood and so on.  Why do they do this?  Because they don’t want contractors and vendors taking advantage of them and the taxpayers.  They want to ensure that what they are asking for is what is going to get done.  Makes sense, right?  Absolutely!

Well here is a question then…if the government is so careful about ensuring that the new addition for the courthouse or the new school gymnasium are built by a company that has provided a guarantee of performance through a surety bond, than why do they not require the same types of guarantee and financial security in situations involving public safety and the criminal justice system?  The response you might hear is that these types of financially secured bonds are complicated and don’t really relate to the criminal justice system.  My answer to that type of thinking is that it is completely wrong. 

These types of financially secured bonds are not complicated and they absolutely do make sense in the criminal justice system.  Every family of every defendant in every court house around the country has available to them a number of local bail bond agents that can easily and affordably provide them with one of these financially secured surety bonds (or bail bonds as most people know them).   From the county’s perspective, if you are going to release a defendant from jail before their trial on the condition that they show up for court, doesn’t it make sense to financially secure that release with a guarantee of performance?  Don’t you want to guarantee the performance of that defendant so that he is held accountable for his actions, just like you want to ensure that the contractor building your new courthouse is being held accountable for meeting the specs of his contract and meeting agreed upon expectations?  Isn’t public safety important enough to assure via use of a bail bond in most release cases?

It does not take a lot of common sense to draw the connection between these two things.  Counties see the value in ensuring the performance of every dollar they spend.  That being the case, shouldn’t the same type of thinking apply to letting defendants out of jail?  Think about the options that are now available to the courts.  First is commercial bail, an option that has been part of our criminal justice system for years and that costs the counties nothing.  When a defendant is let out on a commercial bail bond, the county is being provided with an insurance policy financially guaranteeing the appearance of the defendant in court.  Compare that with own recognizance release through a pretrial release program, an option that does cost the county taxpayer dollars, and which has no financial security or guarantee.  In your opinion, which option makes the most sense?  Which option is holding the defendant accountable?  Which option is protecting the integrity of the criminal justice system?  Which option does a better job of protecting the public?  Which option follows the same line of thinking as other types of surety bonds counties and states require?  The answer is pretty clear. The answer is commercial bail.

If the county and state were to approach all expenditures in the same way and take the same type of stance towards financially protecting their investments and securing the performance of an entity, shouldn’t they do the same with the criminal justice system?  Shouldn’t they be turning to commercial bail to financially guarantee that defendants show up for court?  Shouldn’t they be turning to commercial bail to responsibly and effectively reduce jail populations and keep the system running smoothly and efficiently? Shouldn’t they be utilizing the option that does these things without costing the taxpayer one cent?  I look forward to your thoughts. 

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