You asked us to look at campiagn contributions in Tarrant County from bond agents, so we did. It is in this week's issue www.fwweekly.com.Cool, now that's service! Thanks, Dan! McGraw refers to this Grits post back in December where I highlighted his story on Tarrant County's pretrial services system, Jailhouse Blues. McGraw quoted an anonymous judge declaring, "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.” Reacting to that I wrote:
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.And lo and behold he did. (See: "Cell Blocked," June 21) You've gotta like that. What'd he find? Far and away the most contributions went to the District Clerk and the county commissioners court member who chairs the local bail bond board. Read the entire article, but here's a taste:
“Everything is political in this town, and you have to have some people on your side to make that work,” said bond agent David Gallagher. “There is nothing wrong with us contributing to political campaigns of politicians who have worked to make our criminal justice system work better. Attorneys make even more campaign donations, but nobody ever raises that issue. All we are trying to do is keep a system that has worked well for years, keeping people who don’t deserve it [from getting] the free bonds and free lawyers that the county has to pay for.”The article also contains some interesting comparative information about Tarrant and Travis counties' Pretrial Services programs that gives an idea of the range of difference between Texas counties in how defendants are processed.
What Gallagher is talking about is a county program called PreTrial Services that provides bonds for as little as $20 for most low-risk defendants accused of nonviolent crimes. The program is used extensively in other big-city Texas counties, but in Tarrant it’s been pretty much shunted to the side. The bond agents want to keep it that way, but pressure is increasing from judges and others to expand the program. And they’re looking to Johnson and Wilder in particular as their allies, on this and other developments they believe are putting the screws to their profits.
[County Criminal Court Judge Daryl] Coffey, a proponent of pre-trial release, said there are some numbers that show how Tarrant County bond agents exert their political influence.That's a great explanation. Sometimes you gotta spend it to save it, as this example shows. Kudos to McGraw for following up on a blogger's suggestion with another important contribution to the local debate over bulging inmate populations at the Tarrant County Jail, how they got that way, and why.
In looking at misdemeanor cases handled by his court thus far this year, Coffey determined that about 70 percent of defendants used private bonding agents, while about 10 percent used the Pretrial Services Program. The bonds set for the two groups were similar: Private bonds averaged about $1,000 per case, while the Pretrial Services’ were about $800.
The big difference showed up in how much it cost the defendants to get those bonds. Pretrial Services inmates paid 3 percent of the bond amount, or an average of $20. Those with private surety bonds paid 15 to 20 percent, or $150 to $200. “What ends up happening is that these accused [who get private bonds] spend too much time in jail trying to get money and then show up in court and say they can’t afford counsel,” Coffey said. “The show-up rate is the same whether it is private or Pretrial Services bonds. What happens is that our system puts money in the bond agents’ pockets, then the taxpayer pays for indigent defense. In so many cases, we could have that reversed.”
By comparison, Travis County, with about 15,000 criminal cases filed per year, uses the Pretrial Services Program for about 80 percent of its misdemeanor cases and about 20 percent of felony cases. Tarrant County doesn’t officially keep those numbers, but Tarrant County PreTrial Services director Michelle Brown said the agency handles about 250 cases per month, or only about 20 percent of the county’s caseload.
The difference is funding and, of course, the signs. Travis County’s PreTrial Services Program has 50 employees and an annual budget of $2.6 million per year. The Tarrant program has an annual $1 million budget and 16 employees. Brown expects the number of criminal clients to go up here once the signs are in place. “We don’t know what the impact might be, but I would expect we might not have the staff or the budget to handle it all,” Brown said.
Would an increase in budget for the Tarrant County PreTrial Services Program cost taxpayers money or save money? More than likely, it might save the county. Last week, Tarrant County jails held 1,951 unsentenced felony inmates, and 264 unsentenced misdemeanor inmates. If, as in Austin, about 80 percent of misdemeanor and 20 percent of felony defendants used PreTrial Services, that could mean 390 felony inmates and 210 misdemeanor inmates might be out of jail. At $50 dollars a day to pay for incarceration, that could work out to a savings of $30,000 per day or about $11 million a year.
See these prior related Grits posts:
- Tarrant court appointment system improved but still not fixed
- Tarrant County bail politics keeps jails full
- 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