When one reads of the dramatic shift by Houston's elected judges from releasing defendants on "personal bond," or a promise to appear, to requiring them to post bail in cash, the obvious first question is, Cui bono?, or "Who benefits?" Obviously, elected judges and prosecutors benefit by portraying themselves as "tough on crime" in the next election, but the JMI consulting report hints at another answer -- bail bondsmen. The consultant posed the questions:
First, is it desirable to use the Pretrial Services Agency as a kind of publicly-supported guarantor or service provider for surety bond companies? In cases where a defendant on surety bond is released under special conditions that provide for monitoring and supervision by Pretrial Services, such monitoring and supervision should help ensure the defendant's law-abiding conduct and return for scheduled court appearances. One practical effect of this practice is to reduce the bonding company's risk, at no cost to the bonding company.The report makes clear that, in the past, when defendants were released on cash bond, the bonding company took on pretty much full responsibility for their supervision. Today, though, at a time when more defendants than ever in Harris County must pay cash bonds, county Pretrial Services provides substantial supervision over large numbers of bonding agencies' clients. So what justifies the bonding companies' fat fees?
Second, to what extent does the pressure to provide supervisory services for defendants released on surety bond (including some defendants who can fairly be characterized as "high risk") tend to divert the agency's staff from performing other essential functions-in particular, (a) the supervision of defendants on personal bond for whom they have direct responsibility; and (b) obtaining and presenting information on low-risk defendants who remain in detention because of inability to post financial bond?
The JMI report never names names, but the authors implicitly accuse surety bond companies of privatizing their fees while Harris County Pretrial Services supervises their clients. The result doesn't just soak defendants and taxpayers, there are also opportunity costs: The policy "divert[s] the ageny's staff from performing other essential functions," especially identifying low-risk offenders who shouldn't be detained.
If anybody in Houston wanted to take on a fun research project, it'd be interesting to go through the elected judges' contribution and expenditure reports at the Harris County Clerk's elections division to see how often bail bondsmen show up, and how much they give. Those county level contribution reports aren't online. Maybe next time I'm there ...