Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Blame Game: When All Else Fails, Blame the Bail Bond Industry

You don’t have to search long and hard nowadays to find a news story on jail overcrowding.  It seems like county jails all over the country are facing the similar challenge of how to deal with increasing populations and decreasing budgets.  While no formal in-depth research study has been conducted to determine the real causes of jail overcrowding, the pretrial services community hasn’t been shy about playing the blame game.  In fact, a key pillar of their current narrative is that the jails are crowded because of the commercial bail bonding industry.  They throw around statistics like 70%-80% of people occupying county jails are there with a pretrial status.  And these people are sitting there, languishing away in jail because they can’t afford to pay a bail bondsman.   While this simple argument might seem to make sense on the surface, it is a completely false and misguided statement.  In fact, it doesn’t take much analysis at all to debunk this pretrial services generated propaganda and myth.

First, the very study that is being used by the pretrial community to substantiate their claim that 70% of pretrial detainees are in jail pretrial is also the same study that can be used to discredit the claim.  In April of 2012, the JFA Institute conducted a study to look at the effects of AB109 and jail overcrowding in Los Angeles County.  The study was requested and funded by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  The study does show that approximately 70% of those in LA County jails are there in pretrial status.  What the study also shows however is that the majority of those defendants are not in what they call “pure pretrial” status.  Within that 70% are people who are on specific types of holds, which make them non-bailable.  When all is said and done the number of people eligible to bail out with a commercial bail bond drops substantially.  In a snapshot taken of LA County Jail’s pretrial population, they found 10,545 detainees in pretrial status.  Once you eliminate those that have a hold or that are determined to be too violent to release, the number of pretrial detainees that are eligible for bail drop to just over 1,300…or about 13%.  So to say that jails are crowded because of this 13% of detainees is not only false and misleading, but an obvious case of intentional finger pointing. 

Second, in the last month, there have been multiple news stories out of four specific states that are all dealing with jail overcrowding issues.  These states are Kentucky, Oregon, Wisconsin and Illinois.  While this might not seem that significant to most, it actually is very significant, since none of these four states allow commercial bail bonds.  In other words, how are jails overcrowded in these states if there is no commercial bail…unless, of course, commercial bail isn’t the cause of jail overcrowding.

Lastly, a primary purpose of county jails is to process and house pretrial defendants.  So, to say that the majority of the populations occupying these jails are defendants that are in pretrial status makes perfect sense.  However, there is a challenge being created by the misrepresentation and misuse of this narrative. Currently the pretrial services community is using “jail overcrowding” as a premise to falsely justify the release of individuals that the jails were designed to hold in the first place, and doing so in ways that are both focused and concerned more with population reduction than with public safety or appearance (which by the way are two of the most important aspects of any pretrial release method).

What our counties need to do is to find new innovative ways to manage and supervise those that make up these pretrial populations.  While a portion of them (approximately 13% in LA County) have the ability to quickly, easily and safely be released with a financially secured commercial bail bond, there are still a number of pretrial defendants (up to 87%) that do not initially qualify and need an alternative “safe” release option.   And when I say “safe release” option, I am not referring to a release option that doesn’t involve the concept of personal accountability like own recognizance release or release through a pretrial services agency.  I am talking about a pretrial release solution that incorporates the effectiveness and efficiency of the commercial bail industry.  I am talking about a release option that financially guarantees that the person will show up for their day in court and in the process meets all of the conditions of their release.  I am talking about a release option that maintains, protects and ensures the credibility and concept of accountability in our criminal justice system.   Currently the commercial bail industry does an extremely effective job in managing the release and appearance of a small portion of these jail populations.  If the counties want to effectively and safely release more of these defendants, then it makes sense to utilize a tried and proven industry like commercial bail to do so. 

What I would like to see are the counties, pretrial services agencies, the bail bond industry and all key stakeholders come together to candidly and constructively talk about this challenge.  I would like to see all parties come together to devise and propose “realistic” alternative release solutions that don’t exclude commercial bail but rather focus more on inclusion and our ability to contribute insights and experience to the situation.  What I would like to see is a group of stakeholders focused more on results and less on assigning blame.  I look forward to your thoughts and comments.