Monday, September 17, 2012

Pretrial Fail – Truth and Deception

If you are a bail bond agent or someone that works in the bail bond industry then you have probably seen the new marketing materials being distributed by a group calling themselves the Justice Policy Institute or JPI…of course not to be confused with PJI (the Pretrial Justice Institute).  While their philosophies seem to be the same, they are different organizations.  The marketing piece that I am referring to is entitled, “Bail Fail: Why the US Should End the Practice of Using Money for Bail.”  As you can probably tell by the title, it is a piece that concerns me both as an individual in the commercial bail bond industry, but even more as a member of my local community.  Why?  Because we all know that releasing someone from jail pretrial on an unsecured promise to return to court is the most ineffective way to ensure the appearance of that defendant in court.  To release them without a financial guarantee of some kind is in essence letting them out for FREE with NO ACCOUNTABILITY to the system.  No accountability to show up for court.  No accountability to pay for their crime.  And ultimately no accountability the victim.

As I read the document and maneuvered through the fact-less claims and statistics, it started to click in my head what the problem was.  The argument being made by JPI is completely faulty.  Bear with me while I explain why.  First, their main premise is that all forms of money bail are bad and ineffective.  But what they really mean is that “commercial bail” or secured release is bad.  Why, because, if all forms of money bail are bad, than they would be criticizing themselves.  What they fail to recognize is that pretrial release programs are “money bail.”  The difference is the money doesn’t come from defendant’s families, but rather from taxpayers.  Who pays for the salaries of the people who work in the pretrial office? Taxpayers do.  Who pays for the office space and the office supplies?  Who pays for the clipboards and pencils that they conduct their evidenced based assessments with?  Taxpayers do.  In fact, everything they do costs taxpayers money.  So to say that they shouldn’t be included in the “money bail” category is extremely myopic and untrue.  

That being said, the real discussion that needs to happen in the criminal justice community is not around the money, because at the end of the day the money is part of all forms of release.  The discussion and comparison needs to be around results and effectiveness.  The real conversation needs to be around “secured release” versus “unsecured release” and which method is more effective in achieving its purpose (getting a defendant to court) and which is better at maintaining the highest levels of public safety. And I will have that debate all day long.   And to be honest, that discussion is not much of a debate, because secured release outperforms unsecured release in every dimension possible…especially in the key dimension of getting people to court, where secured release outperforms unsecured release almost 2 to 1.

The pretrial community does not want to have that discussion. Why?  Because they can’t win.  They can’t outperform financially secured release and they don’t have the record to compete head to head with us.  So instead, they distract and deflect the truth and force the conversation on to untrue things like how evil and greedy bail bondsmen are and play into that negative image of the bail industry (sound familiar?).

So let JPI produce its fancy marketing pieces and denounce “money bail” as evil and unnecessary.  Because, at the end of the day, I know that their argument is not only weak, but devoid of any reliable statistics that matter.   Commercial bail is a profession that exists because it is needed.  It is not around because bail agents are good at lobbying state and local governments. Commercial bail is a profession that exists because it works...and it has to work if you think about it.  On average, bail agents take only 10% of the bail amount as premium.  If the defendant doesn’t appear in court and the bail agent doesn’t get them back, the bail agent is responsible for 100% of the bond.  So even if the bail agent gets 9 out of 10 defendants back (which is much better than pretrial programs get), he would be breaking even and more likely than not losing money because of the cost of doing business.  The very nature of the math, forces the bail profession to be successful and to ensure that defendants appear…because if we don’t, we go out of business pretty fast.
Let me end with this.  AIA is comprised of three companies, Allegheny Casualty Company, which has been around for almost 80 years, International Fidelity Insurance Company which has been around for over 107 years, and Associated Bond, who has been around for 80 years.  We underwrite more bail than any other surety in the country and all three of our companies couldn’t be stronger and more successful.  If anything these three companies are a testament of the effectiveness of bail as a profession and a safe and reliable form of release.  So call it money bail or anything you want, but in the real world the proof is in the pudding and financially secured release through a commercial bail bond does work and it does so better than every other method around….oh yeah and it doesn’t cost taxpayers a thing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Get to Know Your Community and Your Community Will Know You

Last week, I had dinner with a small group of bail bond agents and a dynamic up and coming prosecutor.  This prosecutor is a highly decorated lawyer who not only serves the people of Los Angeles each and every day, but does so with the mission to keep our streets and families protected and safe.  We spent the greater part of three hours talking about specific issues and concerns that our industry has with the state of the criminal justice system in Los Angeles.  Additionally, we also talked about larger state issues related to initiatives like AB109, the prison realignment program that is failing so miserably.  The prosecutor not only listened to the group’s remarks and concerns, but offered thoughtful insights and ideas on how to best work together and resolve them.

By the end of the evening, we had earned his respect and confidence as an important and knowledgeable resource that he could utilize in his daily work.  That is when it really hit me.  Because we had reached out to this person and invited him to “our table,” he now not only understood who we were as an industry, but more importantly, he now understood the bigger role that bail could play in California’s criminal justice system.  In other words, he was now more willing to invite us to “the county’s table” when he needed real knowledge and insights.

The purpose of this blog is to communicate out the most important lesson that I learned at this dinner.  And that is the act of reaching out and getting involved.  For far too long, the bail bond industry has been too silent or too fragmented to have its voice heard when it comes to legislation or public opinion.  Call it apathy on our industry’s part or intimidation and reluctance on the part of our local community leaders to reach out to the bail industry, but either way the time is right to put the past behind us and move forward together. 

When the criminal justice system works with the bail industry, great things can happen.  From better management of growing jail populations to more successful appearance rates and the serving of justice to effective use of technology and systems to monitor and track defendants pretrial, by working together, solutions can be developed and results not only achieved but exceeded. 

I encourage each and every bail agent that reads this blog to reach out to their local opinion leaders.  Introduce yourself. Explain your business to them.  Educate them.  Open your door and they will open theirs.  Bail is a local business.  Most bail bond agents work in communities that their parents worked in…that they grew up in and continue to live in to this day.  They work in the same communities in which they are raising a family.  It is time to step up and get involved and get to know your community and its leaders better…and in return, your community and its leaders will not only get to know you just a little bit better, but more importantly they will understand you and respect you.  And that is the first and most important step needed for change.