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.