Monday, December 3, 2012

Bail Bonds and the Media: Objective Journalism or Pretrial Services Advocacy…You Decide

Last weekend a story was written in the San Francisco Weekly that discussed how pretrial detention ruins people’s lives.  The story spun the usual pretrial community anti-bail talking point stating that jails are overcrowded and people are languishing away in jail because they can’t afford a bail bond.   Also in usual fashion, the article puts the victim spotlight not on the actual crime victim but rather the defendant whose life has been ruined now that he is in jail.  This isn't the first story we have seen like this and I am certain it won’t be the last.  However there are a few things that I would like to point out about this particular story that are worth discussing, after all this is a bail bond blog post.

First, instead of going solely after the “evil bail bondsman” as these stories typically do, this story seems to be attacking the judicial system overall including the DA’s office and the judge who presided over this specific case.  This is an interesting and much more aggressive approach for the pretrial community…and a curious one at that.  The commercial bail industry sees itself as a vital component of the criminal justice system;  A component that works hand in hand with the DA’s office and judges.  We see and understand our role as facilitating the process of pretrial release and not as deciding who gets out and who doesn't get out.  If release is determined appropriate by a judge, the bail industry works with the family of the defendant based on that decision.  It is neither our role nor our place to question the judge’s experience and authority.  We find it curious that the pretrial community feels it is theirs.

Second, this article uses the specific case of defendant Anthony Dorton as an example of someone whose life was ruined because he was held pretrial until he was recently found not guilty by a jury.  The first problem with that approach is that the article is making a pretty big claim and basing it on one case.  There have literally been millions of cases over the years in which the pretrial process works exceptionally well, but the author of this article felt the need to use one case to make his point.  Second, if you were to read this article with that information and nothing else, it is easy to begin to feel badly for the defendant.  However, what the article fails to mention is that the defendant they are referring to is not as innocent as they would like you to believe.  In fact, the DA’s office still believes it had a strong case against the defendant and that more investigation is necessary.  So once again, by avoiding all the facts, the article is setting us up to make its predetermined point, regardless of the real facts.  The author essentially tries to create a victim out of the defendant…and that is disrespectful to the real crime victims. Here is a link to the story; “Advanced Pimpin' Expert Costs San Francisco $2K in Hotel Fees.”

Third, the reporter makes the same mistake that many people do when it comes to the “presumption of innocence” doctrine.  The article suggests that one of the reasons that pretrial detention is bad is that is violates a person’s right to the presumption of innocence.  Unfortunately that is a common misrepresentation by the pretrial community.  The presumption of innocence is a concept that is reserved for the courtroom.  It is not a concept that relates to protecting and serving the public and our communities.  If that were not the case, then law enforcement would never be able to make an arrest.  Why? Because they would have to assume that the person is innocent and did not commit the crime.  The reality is that law enforcement bases their actions on another doctrine…one referred to as “probable cause.”  Based on the evidence available to them at the time, they act based on whether there is enough probable cause to make an arrest.  So those individuals who are being detained in jail (which by the way is the purpose of jails in the first place, to detain individuals accused of a crime) are there because of probable cause, and the doctrine of innocent until proven guilty is not yet applicable until they enter the courtroom.

Lastly, to me the most upsetting part of this article is not what is in it, but rather what is not in it.  About three weeks ago, several individuals within the bail industry were asked to participate in a conference call with the author of the article.  Just the fact that someone was actually asking our side of the story was great.  It really gave me a sense of hope and optimism that finally, someone was going to write an honest and objective article about the bail bond industry and the real issues in the criminal justice system.  The group of bail representatives spent about an hour with the reporter.  They explained the bail process, the difference between the presumption of innocence and probable cause, gave statistics on the effectiveness of bail, our opinions on jail overcrowding, and so on.  We told our story the way it needed to be told…with facts, experience and professionalism.   Unfortunately, none of the information we provided was included in the story.

So here we are again…right back where we started this blog, with those in the pretrial community and those in support of their mission, continuing to spin a web of misinformation and pawn it off as fact.  Even when presented with the truth, they seem to find a way to either misrepresent it or disregard it all together.  The good news is that regardless of what they say and write, we still have the truth and facts on our side.  I look forward to your comments.