Tuesday, September 13, 2011

FREE BAIL BONDS: Good for Monopoly, but Not Good in Real Life

The first thing most people think about when they hear the phrase “Get out of jail free” is the game of Monopoly. But unfortunately, that fond childhood memory and association is being replaced by the inadequacies of government sponsored pretrial release programs. I recently read a great article (click here to read the article) by Dr. David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation, discussing how Pretrial Service Agencies are able to tap into the $357 million provided through the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program.

These grants are also tapped into by local police departments. As you would expect, these local police departments are required to provide documentation around annual performance measures describing how their programs are doing. Just as any business would operate, you invest money in a product or a division, you track performance and then make a determination of how to improve the product or process or discontinue it. So far so good, right? Well, here comes the kicker. Unlike the accountability and tracking required by local police departments, Pretrial Service Agencies have no requirement for reporting performance results. Yep, that is what I said, go ahead and read that last sentence a second and a third time. PRETRIAL SERVICE AGENCIES ARE NOT REQUIRED TO REPORT PERFORMANCE RESULTS. Almost makes you want to go out and start a pretrial service office doesn’t it?

In a time of economic depression (oh I’m sorry, I mean recession) across the country and what seems to be a never ending cycle of joblessness, how can our tax dollars be distributed so carelessly with no accountability? How can our elected officials continue to support an entity that doesn’t report results because those results would be so poor that they would look even more foolish than they already do? How can our state and local governments continue to support a government entity that substantially underperforms compared to a more efficient, effective and proven private sector approach (commercial bail)? These are questions that continue to baffle me and everyone I know both in and outside the bail bond profession.

While we continue to be amazed by the ineptitude of the thinking (or lack of it all together) that goes into these programs, there is a ray of hope on the horizon. Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) has sponsored a bill that would require Pretrial Service Agencies that receive any federal taxpayer funding to report their results. These are outlined specifically in the Muhlhausen article. I hope you join us in supporting this new Act (HR 1885) and encourage your own state representatives to do the same.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Kentucky Pretrial Release is Not Coming up Roses

It is not often that I will write a blog about a state that does not have commercial surety bail, but after reading a recent article on a group of Kentucky judges demanding changes in pretrial release rules, I felt I needed to. The article to which I am referring was published in the Courier Journal last week and discussed the growing failures of the state's pretrial release program (and for those of you that don’t know what that is…it is a program that releases defendants for FREE in the hope of reducing jail overcrowding).  Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that if you let people out of jail, there will obviously be less people in jail. That concept is pretty straightforward and I think we see eye to eye with the pretrial release agencies on this one.  The problem I have is the method that's used.  Releasing people from jail with just their promise that they will return for court is a concept that has proven to be a complete failure, time and time again, and the recent article and results in Kentucky only support this. When things have gotten so bad that judges are starting to complain, that should be a sign to all that change is needed. 

What really bothers me about this situation in Kentucky is that the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI) has touted Kentucky as their crown jewel of success with a recent study conducted by PJI showing appearance rates in the high 90%.  But the facts of the study don’t tell you that this particular statistic is based on the use of surety bonds (not commercial surety, but private surety. Surety nonetheless).  The true failures of Kentucky’s pretrial release system can be attributed to the government sponsored FREE bail programs that let defendants out without a third party financial guarantee.  Research is showing that these defendants are not only missing court but they are also going out and committing additional crimes and creating additional crime victims.  The concept of “supervision” is a complete and utter fallacy when it comes to these programs.  There is no incentive for anyone, whether it be the defendant or the Pretrial Services Office, to ensure that a defendant show up for court, and without any accountability or incentive, you can imagine what the results are…nobody shows up for court.

I think it is time that taxpayers demand results from these pretrial service agencies.  They utilize and spend our tax dollars to do an inferior job on the very important task of supervising defendants while they await trial. Meanwhile, you have the commercial bail bond industry that has been in existence for hundreds of years for the sole reason that it is extremely effective at what it does…getting people to show up for court.

I think it is time to pull back the curtain and really take a look at the failures of pretrial service agencies and begin to draw the line in the sand for ALL 50 states and compare their performance to commercial bail.  It shouldn’t be a straight out land grab, but rather a thoughtful discussion about roles, responsibilities, skill sets and ultimately, results…because at the end of the day, that is what should matter right? Results…at least I would like to think so.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bail Bonds, Pornography and Beer, Oh Why?

I am writing this latest blog in response to another recent blog I read yesterday morning entitled, “Bail Bonds Akin to Porn” and a story published this morning in the San Jose Mercury News. Both stories talked about a recent zoning ordinance that was passed by the San Jose City Council that greatly restricts where bail agents can locate and operate their bail bond businesses. This ordinance basically treats bail bond agencies in the same way that adult book stores, bars and other less-desirable businesses are treated. As the blog and article both mention, bail bonds are being lumped into a category of businesses that are commonly associated with “blight and urban decay.”

So let’s get this straight, an industry that supports the eighth amendment of our constitution and that plays an essential role in the criminal justice system is being lumped together with alcoholism, pornography and any other socially unacceptable business you can think of. I hear this kind of thinking and it not only confuses me but also disappoints me. How can our elected officials know so little about the criminal justice system and the bail process, that they would even consider an ordinance such as this? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Is it because we deal with people who are in jail? If that is the rationale, then maybe we should hide all the sheriff’s offices and police stations so no one sees them. Why stop there? Let's also hide all the lawyers who represent those in jail or maybe even the law schools where they learn how to practice. We could even focus on those businesses that have contributed to other problems facing our society like obesity…. so we definitely need to get rid of and hide all the fast food restaurants as well. Now please don’t get me wrong, these examples are extreme and I don’t expect anyone to take them seriously, but my point is that you can’t lump an industry into a category until you fully understand it. So I thought I would take the time in this blog to dissect this problem a little further.

The first part of this “image” problem is a lack of understanding bail. What it does? Who it serves? Why it exists? Second, is the complete and utter misrepresentation of bail by the media. And third, is the lack of awareness and expectations that the majority of consumers have about the bail industry. This is probably due to the fact that no one ever expects to need our industry’s services, and when they do, they do not have the knowledge and experience to know between a good bail agent and a bad bail agent. While I would normally just tag the general consumer with the previously three mentioned challenges, I think we now need to expand that set of people to elected officials as well. I think if people could let go of their misperceptions about bail and learn more about the people and the process, they would have a much different opinion of the industry.

Challenge Number 1 – Lack of Knowledge
Since most consumers will not ever need the services of the bail bond industry, the chances of them learning about it are slim. But that doesn’t mean they can’t understand it a little better, enough to know what to do should an unfortunate situation happen to them. I don’t know anything about tax accounting, but I know what to do when I get a letter from the IRS about my taxes. The same thing should apply to bail bonds. You don’t have to be a bail expert, but rather just know the basics and who you should call if, for whatever reason, you were to need one. Our family of bail bond insurance companies has taken huge strides to better educate consumers, lawmakers, regulators and other influential groups on the bail process and how and why it works. While we have made progress in this area, this article is a definite sign that more needs to be done.

Challenge Number 2 – Misperception of Bail
Since I was a young teenager, I can’t remember seeing a movie or television program that has ever portrayed the bail industry or a bail agent in a positive or, even more importantly, accurate light. Hollywood has created an image of a bail agent (an incorrect image) in its own mind and has then perpetuated that image to consumers for decades upon decades. Consumers only believe what they are being shown to believe and unfortunately, what they are being shown are big, rough, unethical characters that hang out in strip bars, porn shops and dive bars. The reality of the bail industry is far less dramatic. I would compare a real bail agent and bail transaction more to an insurance salesman sitting at a desk underwriting an insurance policy for grandma and grandpa. Rather than a guy running through the streets with a bullet proof vest, gold chains, tattoos and guns drawn. All you need to do is sit down with a “real” bail agent to quickly learn that the Hollywood portrayal couldn’t be farther from the truth. In our network of agents, we have individuals that are former school teachers, law enforcement, military, stock brokers, business men/women, professional athletes and the list goes on. Now don’t get me wrong, every industry has its bad apples but the majority of bail agents, and I hate to burst your bubble, are just like you and me. Hard working professionals with families trying to make a living and along the way, do what they can to help the people around them. Now that is a movie I would like to see.

Challenge Number 3 – Good vs. Bad
The last challenge can be attributed to a combination of both 1 and 2. Since most people don’t understand bail and have a negative image of bail, how can they be expected to be able to know a good agent from a bad agent? Well, my company thought it was time to draw a line in the sand for both our industry and consumers and finally create an expectation in the bail bond industry. Give consumers something to expect with the experience should they ever need a bail bond. Give consumers a trusted name and brand they could turn to and rely on in a difficult time. Hey, even tax accounting has brands (EF Hutton, H&R Block). Why can’t bail? That is why we created the ExpertBail Network. So consumers would have a top of mind brand to educate them on bail, to better represent bail and to help them when they need our services.

While it has only been a year, I am proud to say we have made great progress with ExpertBail, but when I read a story like this one about a city trying to lump bail into this category of undesirable businesses, I know we have more work to do.

The last thing that is important to point out about this ordinance is the impact that it will have on San Jose’s small business owners and jobs. As I mentioned earlier, the majority of bondsman are hard working small business owners who both run businesses that, in many cases, have been in their families for generations, and also employ a good amount of people in the San Jose area. This new zoning ordinance has the potential to put many small businesses out of business due to the costs that could arise from relocation, rent increases, marketing costs, etc. In turn, that would mean the loss of employment for all those employed by those businesses. In a time when our fragile local, state and federal economies are looking for ways to create jobs, passing an unfair and unsubstantiated ordinance on the bail industry as a whole is not only poor fiscal policy, but bad for the morale and confidence of our communities.

As always, I look forward to your comments.

Friday, July 15, 2011

If you haven’t seen the recent op-ed from Nina Salerno Ashford regarding the timeliness of implementing post-conviction bail in California, than please click on the link to read it.

Once you do, I am sure you will agree with me that it makes tremendous sense. As she correctly points out, the State's realignment plan will shift State prisoners to already over-crowded local jail facilities. Post-conviction bail is a valuable tool to help alleviate jail overcrowding by allowing certain offenders, at the discretion of the court, to serve all or part of his or her sentence out of custody on a post-conviction bail. This is a thoughtful approach to jail population management that takes advantage of the public safety-minded benefits of the well-established bail system in California.

The concept of post-conviction bail is not an entirely novel idea. AIA, along with many other sureties, worked together over 10 years ago to craft a post-conviction bond model bill. Since that time, several states have passed such legislation. Nowhere in the country is this concept more appropriate than in California, due to the extreme need for public safety solutions to California's prison and jail overcrowding and the current plan of realigning a portion of the State's prisoners to local jails. The American Bail Coalition, along with CBAA and GSBAA are working together, to try to make post-conviction bonds a reality in California.

I look forward to hearing your comments.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bail Bonds: 2011 PBUS President’s Award and the Future of the Bail Industry

To say I was shocked when I heard that I was going to receive a special award at this year’s PBUS convention would be an understatement. I am very appreciative for being singled out in this way and am humbled by the many nice things that were said.

So once again, thank you very much to the PBUS Board of Directors for this award. I am honored to receive it.

That being said, I need to be very honest….While I am very happy to get this award, I am not happy at all with the state of our industry.

I am saddened at the way that our industry continues to struggle to come together on a national scale. There are an estimated 18,000 bail bond agents in the United States, but only a very few can find the time or the value in attending our industry’s National Association Meeting. That fact makes me unhappy.

I am unhappy with the overall apathy that exists in our industry at every level from agents to sureties.

I am unhappy in the way that there is fragmentation amongst the sureties who want the same things for our industry.

I am unhappy in the way that there is fragmentation amongst the agents who everyday fight for the same things.

I am unhappy that there are still the same cliques that exist across our state and national associations that have existed for many years with little or no plans for action or change.

But, while unhappy, I am still extremely optimistic for the future. Whether you believe it or not, we are facing a huge opportunity right now as an industry... An opportunity to finally come together to create a common front against the things that plague us. Things like the economy, increased competition and government sponsored programs to name a few.

We need to put aside the petty differences that we have faced for years. This infighting has only fueled our enemies and weakened us as an industry. We need better communication, we need better organization, we need better leadership and we need better participation. Then and only then, we will have a fighting chance against our biggest enemy…which is right now, in my opinion, ourselves.

I humbly accept this award, but not as an accolade, but instead as a call to action. I see it as a challenge for me and my family of companies, family of agents and industry colleagues to move things in the right direction. To move things forward to not just “save bail” as is the common cry these days, but more importantly, to enhance and grow our industry in best way possible. I hope you all join me in this mission.

Thank you.