Wednesday, August 29, 2012

GPS: Criminal Justice Hero or Criminal Justice Zero

Click here to read the new blog post from Brian Nairin.

GPS, or Global Positioning System devices, have become one of the fastest growing consumer products in recent history.  Whether they are imbedded in your smart phone to let people know where you are or whether they sit on the dashboard of your car to prevent you from getting lost, GPS devices are becoming more entrenched into our everyday lives.  The question now becomes:  where does GPS make sense and where doesn’t it?  For example, the criminal justice system has embraced GPS as the Second Coming and is now moving towards implementing it in more ways each and every day.  As a citizen of the US and an active member of my local community, I have to ask: how can GPS by itself be the cure-all solution for the problems that ail our criminal justice system?

I have been connected to the criminal justice system for most of my adult life.  I have seen new ideas and technologies come and go like the seasons changing throughout the year.  While some stick and become commonplace, others come and go faster than you can say “change.”  But some go on and on trying to re-invent themselves and reposition themselves until they are able to stick a little bit stronger with the public.  GPS is one of those concepts.  While on the surface, the idea of having the ability to track an individual is great. However, the reality of doing so in an effective way is where the challenge lies for GPS being, as it claims it is the solution for things like jail overcrowding.  Here are just some of the out-points of this cure-all technology:

  • GPS tracks the person, but no one tracks the GPS.
    While GPS is capable of tracking the location of a person down to their placement on a sidewalk, the big question really is less about that and more about who is monitoring the GPS device so that a crime can be prevented.  There have been countless reports of people who have gone outside of house arrest or who have violated an exclusion zone (an area they must avoid as part of their release agreement) and committed a crime, but no one knows that the violation occurred (or much less that it is about to occur) because no one is monitoring the system.

  • GPS tells you where the defendant was when they cut off the device.
    Many opponents of GPS monitoring believe that the above statement is a big reason why GPS fails.  Defendants sometimes cut off the device and then disappear….only to be caught again after committing another crime and creating another crime victim.  All the device tells a monitor is where the defendant was when he cut the bracelet off. 

  • GPS does not prevent crime, but rather just tracks it.
    Since you can only see the location of the person, all GPS really does is tell you where they are and not what they are doing.

These are but three shortcomings of GPS and also three big questions that need to be answered before we can truly see it as an effective means of tracking and monitoring defendants. 
I believe that there is a solution to increasing the effectiveness of a GPS device. It is a solution that has proven itself time and time again to be the most effective element in the criminal justice system and the only element that actually provides a guarantee of performance.  That solution is to couple the new technology (GPS) with the historically proven effectiveness of the commercial bail industry.  What makes the commercial bail industry such an effective solution for the criminal justice system is that it creates accountability.  Accountability with the defendant. Accountability with the family, friends and potentially the colleagues of the defendant.  And most importantly, accountability with an AM BEST rated insurance company and its independent insurance agent (the bail agent) who provides the product to the consumer.  When you couple these things with the ability to track a person through a GPS device, you get a superior result within the pretrial release process.  If the defendant wearing the device fails to perform, there is an insurance company that must pay the bail amount to the county. But when you couple GPS with another government run, taxpayer funded program that places un-invested, 9 to 5 employees in charge of tracking and monitoring defendants you get an inferior program that will not only leave defendants unaccountable but also leave the public less safe.
Once again, I encourage key decision makers to bring the commercial bail industry to the table when discussing ways to improve the system.  It brings a level of experience, knowledge and success that can be leveraged in ways to improve the effectiveness of pretrial release and improve the safety of our communities.  All local officials must be willing to do is ask. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

"FREE BAIL" Denied: Hats off to San Mateo County

I would like to dedicate this blog post to the hard working men and women in the San Mateo Criminal Justice System.  On behalf of the AIA family of insurance companies, the oldest and largest surety bail underwriters in California and the country, I would like to extend a “job well done” to the decision makers who did not drink the Pretrial Justice Institute’s jug of Kool-Aid.   If you didn’t read the recent OP-ED piece in the Daily Journal out of San Mateo County this week, then you missed a misguided and misinformed OP-ED article by consultant and apparent friend of the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI), Bob Cushman.  For those of you who don’t know who PJI is, they are the left wing radical group that has made it their mission to install a taxpayer funded “FREE BAIL” program in every county throughout the country.  The ultimate goal: to eliminate thousands of small, family run bail bond businesses and the commercial bail industry altogether…but I digress.

Based on the article, Bob is pretty upset that county officials didn’t move forward with PJI’s taxpayer funded criminal welfare system recommendations.  According to Mr. Cushman, the county is “resisting the adoption of modern, evidenced based practices to reduce the 76% of people in our jails pending trial.”  Let’s quickly break down that last statement.  First, “resisting” is a pretty strong word coming from a supposed independent objective consultant.  Maybe they aren’t “resisting” but rather making a smart informed decision based on what’s best for the county.  In fact, their “resistance” is based solely on a study that PJI did for the very purpose of installing their program into San Mateo County.  So to call an objective decision “resistance” is certainly stretching it a bit.  Then again, that is pretty much a common practice of the folks at PJI…it is their way or the highway. 

Next, let’s look at the words “modern, evidenced based practices.”  One would think that “evidence based practices” require actual evidence.  Has anyone ever produced evidence of these so called modern techniques they use to let people out of jail for FREE with no accountability?  I know I haven’t seen any evidence.  I also know that we have asked PJI for their statistics that show the results of the program, but continue to get excuses and red tape.  The fact is: there already are statistics.  The U.S. Department of Justice has studied pretrial release for many years and has statistics that show how well…or how poorly these “modern, evidenced based” pretrial release programs perform. Just an FYI: secured release, i.e. commercial bail, outperforms these taxpayer funded “FREE BAIL” programs in terms of appearance rates by almost 2 to 1.  But since those statistics weren’t good for their side, PJI used their influence to have the DOJ rescind over 20 years of research. 

So it has become very clear and obvious that research isn’t PJI’s expertise.  Just look at last week’s recent Star Telegram article out of Tarrant County Texas that uncovered how a PJI promoted program was calculating their failure to appear rates (FTA).  While the commercial bail industry calculates its FTA rates, we use a “defendant based” approach…that is, when a defendant misses any of their court dates, it is considered a 100% FTA.  Pretrial Services, on the other hand, calculates their FTAs using a more liberal event-based approach…that is, when a defendant misses his trial date, but did manage to go the previous 3 times he was called, they only count it as a 25% FTA.  The fault here is the bigger the number you divide by, the smaller the result.  So are these really “evidenced-based” practices or “fantasy-based” practices.  We think they are the latter.

Lastly, Mr. Cushman mentions the statistic “76% of the people in jail are awaiting trial.”  We think that is a great number…a great number that needs to be studied.  PJI is selling their red herring that the jails are crowded because people can’t afford a bail bond.  This statement is anything but a fact.  I just recently blogged on this topic and you can read that blog by clicking here.  The high level summary is that bail bonds are not unaffordable.  Yes, some bails, especially in California are set too high (and the bail industry advocates a review of the schedules), but with flexible financing and credit options (just like any other industry offers), any consumer can get a bail bond.  In this tough economy we have done what any other business does: we have developed a pricing model to accommodate the marketplace.  So people aren’t languishing in jail because of the commercial bail industry.  Our industry fully supports a study of jail populations to determine who really is in there.  We are confident that the results will show that commercial bail is not the problem…but rather in our opinion, may very well be the solution (see my other recent blog post).

We think that PJI needs to take its cross hairs off the commercial bail industry and focus more on perfecting the programs and processes that pretrial programs were designed to operate.  The bail industry has no objections to the existence of Pretrial Service Agencies.  As an industry, we believe that they play an essential role in helping special needs defendants get the help they need.  However, as citizens and members of our own local communities, we do have an objection to those programs releasing individuals out of jail on simply a promise to return, with little to no supervision or follow-up, and no accountability when they don’t show up.  As community members, we object to our public safety being negatively impacted with our own tax dollars.

So I am sorry that Mr. Cushman is unhappy that PJI’s research report, with its smoke and mirrors, didn’t convince San Mateo’s leadership to spend millions of dollars funding another ineffective government program.  At the same time I am proud of San Mateo for being smart about how it spends taxpayer dollars.  I am proud of San Mateo for supporting small, family owned, private businesses.  And I am proud of San Mateo for looking out for the public safety of its citizens.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jail Realignment: Action Will Cause Reaction

Ignoring the problem or giving it to someone else doesn’t mean it has gone away….that is the lesson that Governor Brown needs to learn when it comes to jail populations and the criminal justice system in California.  Recently it was reported that crime in Sacramento is up 7% since January of this year.  What is so compelling about this stat is that it comes at the tail end of 5 straight years of declines in crime.  So what is the cause of this increase?  According to a poll being conducted on the Sacramento Bee’s website, 81% of respondents say the cause is a combination of cuts in law enforcement, less supervision of people on parole, release of more parolees into the community and cuts in the juvenile court system.  Regardless of which single reason or combinations of reasons are thought to be the cause, it is hard to deny the negative impact that the Governor’s “Jail Realignment” has had on local communities.  Sacramento is just one of many counties and cities that have reported significant increases in local crime numbers.  Cities like Antioch, San Jose and Vallejo are all reporting increases in both non-violent and violent crimes.  Recently the San Mateo County Times reported that ALL Bay Area cities have seen double digit increases in crime (specifically home robberies) in 2012 (Palo Alto leads the way with a 63% increase). 

What the Governor hasn’t figured out is that cutting costs, slashing budgets and releasing inmates is not the solution to jail overcrowding.  It is, however, the cause of increased crime and lack of respect for law enforcement.  If a criminal knows they won’t be punished, then what is the incentive for them to stop?  Whether the crime is classified as violent or non-violent, criminals will care less and less about the law and more and more about who their next crime victim is.  So what is the answer?  Is it bigger government in Sacramento? Is it bigger government in your local communities?  Or shall we look to the private sector to do what they do best, which is come up with efficient, cost effective solutions that produce results?  As the Chief Executive Officer of the nation’s largest family of bail bond insurance companies, I think there is a lot that both state and local governments can learn from the bail industry if they were only to ask.  But since they haven’t asked and to date have been reluctant to include us in the conversations, here are some things that I think the Governor and local community leaders should think about.  And the first thing on the list is an easy one.

  • Tap into the knowledge and experience of the commercial bail industry - Bail bond agents have been a vital part of California’s criminal justice system for over 60 years.  Bail agents understand how to supervise and ensure appearance of those released pretrial. Leverage this knowledge and transfer it to managing populations post-conviction.

  • Better understand the pretrial populations that make up jails to determine the best solution – without knowing who is in jail and why they are there you can’t solve the problem.  Just releasing any and every one that falls into a “non, non, non” category, is not an effective way to manage populations. As the evidence is showing, even non-violent offenders create crime victims, and releasing them is putting public safety at significant risk.

  • Assess bail amounts and bond schedules - If jails are crowded because bail amounts are too high, then look at lowering bail schedules…once again, tap into knowledge and experience of the bail industry.

These are just a few simple things state and local governments could do to not only come up with a better long term solution to these challenges, but also a short term one that creates both accountability amongst those accused of committing crimes and a level of public safety that we are all confident in.  What do you think?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Pretrial Services Fails Again: Time to Tell the Truth

Click on the following link to read Brian's new blog post on the failure of jail re-alignment.

If you have picked up a paper recently you probably have seen story after story about crowded jails.  Too many crimes being committed, but not enough jail cells to house those that break the law.  So, you are probably wondering why the jails are crowded.  Well the folks at the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI), an organization dedicated to the elimination of commercial bail and other financial means of release, would like you to believe that the jails are crowded because people can’t afford a bail bond.  In fact, according to their own research (which by the way, no one except them has seen), they state that anywhere from 60% to as high as 80% of the pretrial populations sitting in jail are stuck there because they can’t afford a bail bond.

The first question I have is where is the research?  Show us the breakdowns of these populations and prove that people truly are “languishing” away in prison because of the bail bondsmen, who by the way do not set bail -- that's the judge's job.  The problem is that there isn’t any research…at least none actually done by PJI…and to be honest, none that supports them as an effective source of pretrial release.  If PJI only took the time to actually research the make-up of the jail populations as opposed to touring the country pitching national associations to sign resolutions of questionable merit and veracity supporting their FREE criminal welfare programs, they would see that the jail populations are comprised of many different types of individuals…most of whom can’t be released on bail…not because they can’t afford it, but rather because they don’t qualify.  For example, some sitting in the county jail right now are the following types of individuals:

-  Those being held on immigration violations – do not qualify for bail
Those waiting to be transferred to a state prison – do not qualify for bail
-  Those waiting to be transferred to another jail in another state or county – do not qualify for bail
-  Those being held on probation violations or “blue warrants” – do not qualify for bail
-  Those actually serving out their sentence in a county jail – do not qualify for bail
-  Those that are deemed too dangerous for the community or are a flight risk – do not qualify for bail
-  Those whose bail was set so inordinately high that they were never intended to be released anyway
-  For those that do have a bail bond set, affording one is not a problem.  With flexible financing and payment
   options, bail bonds can be purchased quite readily.

So why are jails overcrowded if it is not that people can’t afford a bail bond?  We think that is a good question and one that should be answered through research as opposed to just pointing at the usual easy target, the bail bondsman.  In fact, a recent article in the Charleston Daily Mail, uncovered that probation and parole violations accounted for 38% of the jail population in a West Virginia jail (see the article by clicking the link: Parole violations add to jail woes).  While this is only one glimpse into jail populations in West Virginia, it just goes to show that there are many reasons for jail overcrowding and not just the one of “not being able to afford a bail bond.”  In fact, the Texas Public Policy Foundation recently commented on the topic of jail overcrowding by stating the following:

“The most important preliminary step available to counties seeking to reduce unnecessary pretrial incarceration is to review their jail population data to determine the number of defendants who are locked up solely because they could not afford a commercial bail bond.”

For years the anti-commercial bail PJI has targeted bail agents for extinction. We are a solution, not the problem with the criminal justice system.  In fact, the bail industry is the only entity that “guarantees” performance in the criminal justice system…and if we don’t perform we pay the court.  How does PJI respond when pretrial service agencies fail to perform, which they so frequently do?    Now that is a question that needs an answer.  What do you think?