On Tuesday, they locked me in the jail.
On Wednesday, my trial was attested.
On Thursday they said "guilty"
and the judge's gavel fell.
In the current edition of the Fort Worth Weekly, ("Jailhouse Blues: Who benefits from Tarrant County's flawed pretrial release system?" Dec. 7) reporter Dan McGraw examines this favorite Grits subject. McGraw turned onto the story after spending three days himself in the county jail until he could borrow $5,000 for bail for lapsed child support. He found that many inmates were there because they couldn't make bond for for low-level misdemeanors and non-violent offenses. Most could have been freed, he discovered, if Tarrant County had a more robust system for assigning "personal bonds," which is a promise to the court to appear instead of paying cash to a bonding agent at a private business. Wrote McGraw:
I kept thinking one thing: If Tarrant County is so squeezed for jail beds — in fact, is considering spending $100 million or more on a new jail — then why are all these non-scary guys staying in here so long? Especially since — as I later learned — there is a county program specifically aimed at getting non-violent, low-flight-risk inmates out of jail?The failure to use this program has human costs, McGraw noted, as well as financial ones. At the facility where McGraw was incarcerated,
It’s a question that keeps raising its ugly head among judges, elected county officials, criminal defense lawyers, and the bail bond industry in Tarrant County. The program called Tarrant County PreTrial Services (TCPS) uses personal recognizance bonds — which cost $20 or 3 percent of the bond — to get those non-violent misdemeanor and felony inmates out of the jail and off the county room-and-board bill. But even while the county is debating where to build and how much to spend on a new jail, the idea of making better use of the beds doesn’t seem to be part of the discussion.
most of the inmates were there on misdemeanor or lower-level felony charges. Actually, those are the things they got arrested for. The reason that most of them, days or weeks or months after the arrest, were still in jail is that they couldn’t make bond. Like the college kid who was in for possession of less than a gram of pot, but because it was his second offense, had had his bond set at $4,000. The bonding companies wanted $1,000 cash in order to put up the $4,000; because he couldn’t swing that, he’d had to drop out of the University of North Texas and had been in the joint for three weeks.So in this case, a kid had to drop out of school because he couldn't post bond for a tiny amount of pot. Are Tarrant County citizens safer or less safe as a result? Did that help or hurt the economy? (If he doesn't go back to school, the young man's lifelong earning potential, statistically, will be lower.) That's just bad public policy on its face -- requiring high bail ruined this kid's life in a way that's totally out of proportion with the alleged offense.
What's more, there's no evidence that increasing use of personal bonds in Tarrant County would reduce public safety. The failure-to-appear rate for people who pay a bail bondsman in Tarrant is about 16%, McGraw noted, while only 4.5% of those on personal bond failed to show up in court in 2005. The director of Tarrant's pretrial services program, Michelle Brown, said, "Part of the reason for that low number is that we make them come into our offices once a month, or even weekly, depending on the case. Give us a few more staff members and the ability to release a few more people, and the failure-to-appear [rate] won’t change.”
The Tarrant County Commissioners Court, ultimately, is responsible for understaffing the pretrial services division and restricting the agency's access to inmates. "Brown said the Tarrant program is one of the most restrictive in the state. For example, other counties do not limit their program only to their own residents, and many make it available to people with minor prior records," which Tarrant does not.
McGraw's sources also pointed out how excessive use of bonding agents cost the county even more money in indigent defense costs, which have exploded recently in Tarrant compared to other large counties.
Fort Worth criminal defense lawyer Mark Daniel ... said the way pre-trial services is used here wastes millions of dollars in public money. “What we are doing is setting high bonds for people with minor offenses, and then they spend all the money they have to get out,” Daniel said. “The public then has to pay for indigent defense lawyers.” ...I was gratified to see Tarrant judges speaking up to support more aggressive use of pretrial services and personal bonds, since as I've argued before, most solutions to jail overcrowding require their cooperation, or at least their acquiescence.
“The absurdity of this situation is more than apparent,” Daniel wrote in a letter to commissioners in May. “Under this system, a person charged with a criminal offense pays a bail bondsman to secure release from jail and then is often left without sufficient resources to retain counsel. The citizens of Tarrant County are then left to foot the bill for court-appointed counsel.”
District Judge Daryl Coffey, who handles misdemeanor cases, figures that about 70 percent of the defendants who come before him have gotten bonds from the private sector. “If you have a job and live here, and it is a non-violent offense, and you have ties to the community, you should be out immediately in most cases,” he said. “These people should never even be booked into a jail, but a lot of them are. By the time they get into my court, some have already bonded out, but some haven’t been able to. Those jail beds need to be used efficiently and effectively for people who need to be in jail. The violent offenders need to be in jail with high bonds, because the community needs to be protected. But the rapist costs the same to incarcerate as a hot-check writer.”When the judge overseeing these low-level cases thinks most defendants he sees should never have been booked into the jail, it's hard to see the argument for spening $100 million on a new one. So why not at least try expanding pre-trial services instead of saddling taxpayers with all that new debt? McGraw was told the answer is the political clout of the bail bonding agents.
District Judge Robert Gill, who handles mostly felony cases, also feels the pre-trial services program needs to be expanded. “We should be using [the program] in a more aggressive way,” Gill said. “I think staffing levels might need to be brought up higher, so that more people can be found who qualify.”
one judge who didn’t want his name used said the power of the bond business is a major part of the problem. “When you are running for office here, and you are perceived as someone who either wants bond reduction or more personal recognizance releases, the bond companies come up with money and force against you,” he said.That last bit, coming from a judge who is afraid to speak out publicly, tells volumes about the political environment in which these decisions are being made. I hope McGraw's next step is to examine bonding agents' campaign contributions to judges and county officials, including the ones most aggressively shilling for the bondsmen's interests, and to file open records requests to document communications between the bonding agents' lobbyist Gib Lewis and local officials.
“But we need to have a lot of programs that allow people out without bail,” the judge continued. “If we have a DUI case, maybe we can have that person enroll in an alcohol prevention program before they come to trial. That can be part of the pre-trial services release at a low cost. We can have lower-level personal cash bonds — maybe $100 to $250 for a misdemeanor — that the defendants get back when they go to trial. How it works now is that a defendant has to come up with a large amount of bond money to get out, and that is the only thing on their mind at that time. We’re causing hardships for people who don’t deserve it, overcrowding the jails, and the only people making money off this are the bonding agents.” (emphasis added)
Tarrant is still a Republican county, for the most part, but this isn't a partisan issue -- there's nothing conservative about using government institutions to service the bottom line of special interests who make big campaign contributions. Thankfully, some Tarrant County officials are more committed to doing justice and protecting the taxpayer than to carrying political water for the bail bond industry.
Judge Coffey likens the criminal booking process to a hospital emergency room. “If you have one person with a cut finger and another patient suffering from a serious heart attack, the hospital treats them very differently,” Coffey said. “The person with the cut finger gets a bandage and instructions for follow-up care and is sent home. The heart attack patient has to stay in the hospital for his own good.Thank heavens for Judge Coffey and his judicial brethren quoted in the article -- most politicians (and they're elected judges, after all) would rather take the bail bondsmen's money and go along instead admitting to the public that the emperor wears no clothes. It takes guts for somene who works in the criminal justice system to speak up and say, putting this person in jail won't make us any safer. I'm glad this debate is starting to occur in Tarrant County, or rather, that it's starting to occur in public.
“So many times in our court system here, we are treating the inmates with minor charges very similarly to the ones with serious charges,” he said. “We have to get better at doing criminal justice triage. I am not for letting serious offenders out. But I am pro-taxpayer on this one. Because of the way this system works right now, we have people being confined to the jail — some for just a few days, others for weeks and months — who are not dangerous and pose no threat to the community. These people show up at a very high rate for their court appearances. We have new ways to monitor them. We need to make the system work, so that people who do not need to be confined are not.”
For more on the subject, see these related Grits posts:
- Bail policies juice Tarrant jail overcrowding
- Does Tarrant County need a public defender?
- Bail blunders boost bulging Harris jail population
- Should county government subsidize bail bond companies?
- Pretrial services = Erath County's overincarceration solution
- Why are Texas county jails overcrowded? Pretrial detention
- Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding