Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Pretrial Services – Defining Success by Failing More Than 20% of the Time

What if you only showed up for work 4 out of 5 days a week?  Would that be acceptable to your employer?  What if you only paid 4 out of every 5 bills you received from your local utility?  Would they still keep your power on?  What if you only completed 79% of your tax return?  Would the IRS let you get away with it?   The easy answer to all these questions is ABSOLUTELY NOT! 

So you are probably asking why I am asking such common sense questions.  Well, the truth is what is common sense to most of us is unfortunately not common sense to others.  For example, just this past weekend, an article was written in the Courier-Journal touting the incredible success of the pretrial services program in Jefferson County, Kentucky.  A state that you may or may not know that does not allow commercial bail.  According to a Jefferson County District Court judge, the Pretrial Service Agency in his county gets High-Risk defendants back to court “an amazing 79% of the time….”  Really?  Amazing?  Twenty-one percent of the time, the defendant is pretty much ignoring the authority of the system and doing whatever they want, and that, according to the judge is “amazing” and defines “success?”  Interesting and disturbing to say the least.

The article goes on to show some math to support the so called success of the Pretrial Services Agencies.  However, if you are a common sense person, it is really hard to define these numbers as “success.”  According to the article, 35,186 people obtained pretrial release in Jefferson County.  Each of these individuals went through a so called evidenced based risk assessment by the local Pretrial Services Agency.  Thirteen percent of low-risk defendants did not show up for court….does that sound like success?  Twenty percent of medium risk defendants did not show up for court…does that sound like success?  Twenty one percent of high-risk defendants did not show up for court…once again, does that sound like success?  To the pretrial folks, sure, it is great.  But to the community it is absolutely not.  Especially when almost 20% of the high-risk defendants are re-offending…in other words, several thousand defendants who have been released under pretrial services’ imaginary veil of supervision are ignoring the authority of the courts and in the process are running free to commit more crimes and victims.  And all this happens at a serious financial and social cost to the county and state.  When people fail to appear for court there is a huge financial cost that accompanies that act.  In Dallas, Texas that cost was found to be over $1,700 per defendant.  Applying that number to Jefferson County, based on a failure to appear rate of over 21% for just high risk defendants, the cost to Jefferson County is easily in the millions of dollars.

What makes this story even more disturbing is that this ineffective and costly system of managing criminal defendants (on both the front and back end of the process) is funded 100% by taxpayer dollars.  Yes, those taxpayers in Jefferson County, Kentucky are paying for a government run Pretrial Service Agency to fail 20% of the time.  And just for the record, when these 20% of high-risk defendants don’t show up for court, who do you think goes and gets them?  Who is held accountable and pays the court when they don’t show up?  The answer is no one.  Why?  Because there is no skin in the game and no accountability by any party involved (pretrial services or the defendant).  When a defendant fails to appear, Pretrial Service Agencies have nothing to lose.  The court just issues a bench warrant and it becomes the responsibility of already overburdened law enforcement to get him…which usually happens after they have committed an additional crime.

There is definitely not a simple solution to the challenges facing criminal justice systems like Kentucky.  However, there is a more effective solution.  A solution that is currently in practice in 46 other states;  A solution that gets defendants back to court better than any other form of pretrial release;  A solution that does not cost the taxpayers a single dollar; A  solution that actually generates revenue for the county and state through premium taxes and forfeiture payments; A solution that is based on a real risk assessment and is evidenced based; A solution that lowers recidivism and better protects the community; and finally, a solution that gives crime victims a chance at justice. This solution is the commercial bail bond industry.  It is time for states like Kentucky to start considering ways to more responsibly and effectively maintain the accountability of their criminal justice system and protect the public interest of its communities.


  1. Kentucky's system of pretrial services (PSAs) agencies, with offices throughout the state, is an unnecessary bureaucracy that could not exist without Federal taxpayer support. Kentucky frequently contracts with "researchers" to provide reports, also paid for with Federal tax dollars, that are biased in favor of the government system. There is no effort to compare the Kentucky PSA system with the efficiencies that the private sector could provide.

  2. Jim, thanks for the comment. I completely agree with you. Taxpayer funded pretrial release programs will never be able to match the effectiveness of the private sector commercial bail bonding industry. It makes no sense to spend more and more taxpayer dollars on an inefficient and ineffective release mechanism, especially when there is a private channel that is more effective and costs the taxpayers $0.