Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Reduce pretrial detention to stave off jail overcrowding

I had a conversation with someone today at the Travis County Sheriff's Office who was surprised to learn that Travis County has one of the highest rates of jailed pretrial detainees among large counties, so I thought I'd gather up the relevant data for comparison.

As described on this blog many times, the primary cause of overcrowding in Texas jails is excessive pretrial detention, particularly in the larger counties. Based on data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (pdf), here are the pretrial detention rates for Texas' six largest counties, along with the percentage of jail inmates who are misdemeanor defendants being held pretrial:

Throughout Texas, this has been the main cause of county jail overcrowding over the last few years. Dr. Tony Fabelo has calculated that while overall jail population increased 18.6% between 2000-2007, the number of pretrial detainees increased 49.2% over the same period. And counties like Travis incarcerating significant numbers of misdemeanants pretrial are exacerbating the problem.

As recently as 1995, pretrial defendants made up just 30.3% of Texas county jail populations, compared to 54% today.

Prosecutors like pretrial detention because it induces plea bargains, in some cases even from people who may be actually innocent. Judges tend to like it because it lets them appear "tuff on crime." Since neither judges nor prosecutors must raise anyone's taxes to adopt that stance, it's an easy position to take that passes off the difficult decisions about jail overcrowding to commissioners courts.

It's worth noting that the National Association of Counties recently put out a report titled Jail Population Management: Elected County Officials' Guide to Pretrial Services (pdf). I've not yet gotten around to reading this timely document, but its publication reinforces my sense that reducing pretrial detention is the best way to reduce overcrowding pressures in the near term.

UPDATE: According to Maj. Darren Long of the Travis County Sheriff, the data reported to TCJS understates how many defendants in the Travis jail are pretrial detainees. He said the Urban Institute just completed a study of the jail population which has not yet been published, but according to their draft report a whopping 88% of Travis County jail inmates are pretrial detainees! That's an astonishing number. I'll try to figure out the source of the discrepancy in the coming days and report back.


Anonymous said...

DOJ just did a study of Harris County Courts and County Jail.
It was not what they wanted to hear. Jail is full of pre-trial and probation technical violators. Report got shelved, and the Harris County Criminal Justice Money Machine still rocks on
Grits need to find a copy of this report.

Anonymous said...

Court appointed attorneys not doing there jobs either.

Anonymous said...

It’s easy to armchair quarterback this stuff, but unless you start backing these paint brush studies with true case by case background information in order to actually discover why many of these defendants are unable to obtain release then the study is just another cry of wolf.

I have to assume that Scott is once again advocating the use of government (tax payer funded) free bonds, which is in essence, a get out of jail free, and never return to court scenario for a huge portion of criminal defendants if in fact they are given this type of release. Recently, you (Scott) included in your choice of options the suggestion of lowering the bail bonds which does in fact work, and I would hope that you are beginning to see the common sense that surrounds this option.

When you take into consideration the many circumstances that do in fact exist, and are the thought processes and reasoning in the works that prevent many of these misdemeanor defendants from being arbitrarily released; the only answer to the problem is found in lowering the bail bonds so that a responsible party insures the defendant’s appearance.

The reasoning behind most cases in Harris County have less to do with strong arm policies to obtain guilty pleas and a lot more to do with the fact that the defendant simply isn’t trustworthy enough to be released without private bail. This is the only place where fault can be found, but it is still very easily understood why judges set high bail and follow these policies.

The list of reasons is lengthy and judges feel a responsibility to send a clear message to criminal defendants who have demonstrated for all practical purposes a total disregard for lawful behavior in the past, and in many cases, over and over again, and the message isn’t, ok then, that will be fine, and just because you have decided to completely ignore the admonition you received from this court in the past I am now going to reward you with free or low bail.

The criminal defendant that sits in jail with both misdemeanor and felony cases pending shouldn’t be considered in these studies at all, but it is doubtful they were taken out.

Regardless of the reasoning the fact that jails are overcrowded should also be taken into consideration with regards to misdemeanor offenses and judges are very well aware of the fact the bail bondsman are going to get the defendant to court and so bail should be considered by that precept alone.

Your friendly neighborhood bondsman

Disability Insurance said...

Interesting case all things considered.

Thomas Hobbes said...

I'm always left to wonder why bondsmen feel they should have the unfettered right to sell a product they neither produce nor own.

A personal bond, at least statutorily, is not a reward for good behavior, nor was it intended to be. Every criminal defendant charged in a Texas county or district court has the right to seek and/or be considered for personal bond release and judges have great discretion in granting personal bond releases.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:23, why don't you stop assuming what I'm trying to imply and instead limit your reactions to the issue presented? You always come back to your same hobby horse every time the word "pretrial" is used in a post. We all realize you're afraid you'll lose business if counties get serious about alternatives to jail overcrowding and stop reflexively lining your pockets, but frankly that's not my concern. Fifteen years ago 30.3% of jail inmates statewide were pretrial defendants. In Travis it's now 88%. Neither the Commissioners Court nor the voters are likely to approve a new jail anytime soon (and in Houston voters rejected the idea) so the only other option is to address the causes of jail overcrowding, which is overwhelmingly pretrial detention.

You can call it "armchair quarterbacking," but the fact is the folks actually running the jails must deal with these issues daily, and they're under no illusions that the issue can be addressed without reducing pretrial detention. Indeed, the only voices I hear supporting the status quo are usually folks like you who are profiteering off the system, and that cannot be the decisive factor when making public policy.

Anonymous said...

It’s easy to armchair quarterback this stuff, but unless you start backing these paint brush studies with true case by case background information in order to actually discover why many of these defendants are unable to obtain release then the study is just another cry of wolf.

So, you'll only believe the study if every single case is listed and tracked? If the tens of thousands to which this applies?

You know how I can tell you're full of shit?

I have to assume that Scott is once again advocating the use of government (tax payer funded) free bonds, which is in essence, a get out of jail free, and never return to court scenario for a huge portion of criminal defendants if in fact they are given this type of release.

The US is the only major country that allows private companies to assist with, and profit from, bonds. And make campaign contributions to the very judges that set bonds and help them make a profit...

Now, I never assume that correlation equals causation, but there's a pretty strong case for it here.

I won't bother with the rest of your post, but this part: Your friendly neighborhood bondsman is akin to saying "Your friendly neighborhood mobster/loan shark."

Go sell crazy somewhere else. We're all stocked up here.


Anonymous said...

The county I retired from was notorious about setting no bonds for defendants arrested on probation violation charges only; both misdemeanor and felony. And they would sit in jail and sit in jail and sit in jail. Some judges thought these defendants did not have the right to a court appointed attorney. That changed but what did not change was the fact these defendants continued to sit in jail.

We tracked defendant-attorney communications by way of documenting the number of telephone communications, writings and personal visits between the defendant and the court appointed attorney.

For the most part, the majority of attorneys never darkened the jail until plea day. And what was alarming were the fees some of these attorneys submitted to the court for that one time visit on plea day.

Course these attorneys cya'd by way of having the defendant on oath and for the record state they were pleased with their representation.

Anyway, TCJS should start requiring counties to document on the monthly population reports as to how many defendants are in jail on both misdemeanor and felony revocations.

From the Texas CCP..............

A defendant so arrested may be detained in the county jail or other appropriate place of confinement until he can be taken before the judge. Such officer shall forthwith report such arrest and detention to such judge. If the defendant has not been released on bail, on motion by the defendant the judge shall cause the defendant to be brought before the judge for a hearing within 20 days of filing of said motion, and after a hearing without a jury, may either continue, extend, modify, or revoke the community supervision.

Anonymous said...

In response to 11:40

Since we are not dealing with a commodity your apples and oranges debate falls just a little short of having any validity at all; and I do not know how things are done in Austin these days but in Harris County everyone (does) get a pre-trial release evaluation.

Your friendly neighborhood bondsman

Anonymous said...

For Grits:

I realize that each time I comment the response I should expect is that I am unable to be objective because I am so deeply embedded with greed; the issue I refer to however is as on point as it can possibly be, and I simply state, (as usual)

[The problem of (jail overcrowding) can be easily remedied, right now, [today] by lowering the bonds.]

My reference to armchair quarterbacks wasn’t meant to belittle anyone; I was simply pointing out that mitigating circumstances are involved with each individual jail release consideration, and the comment I was addressing was the blogger who indicates that pretrial detention is used as a punishment and a strong arm tactic by prosecutors and judiciary.

Furthermore, I feel that when concerned citizens such as you, who give well read opinion on blogs surrounding criminal justice matters and choose to address issues that I do in fact have 30 years of day to day experience dealing with and they want also to present or suggest solutions, that they themselves have an opportunity to consider objectivity.

In response to fifteen years ago, the problem that reared its ugly head was the fact that rooms were being completely filled with stacks of paper reaching to the ceiling with pre-trial release bond forfeitures, because, even though no one was responsible for the defendants appearance, the law suits still had to be filed, so that the appearance of trying to collect was in existence; keeping in mind also that many judges didn’t forfeit the bonds, they simply revoked them to hide the inefficiency of their own decision to release those that failed to appear this way; this was a political self protection mechanism since politicians are often times elected on job performance.

Anonymous said...


The entity charged with the responsibility of serving these causes of action for collection at that time in Harris County was the Constable of Precinct 1. The Constables office felt like they were being inundated with providing service in civil actions to collect for bond forfeitures from the very person who absconded from justice in the first place and as has been pointed out on countless occasions when discussing these arguments; they did not have, nor did the Harris County Sheriffs Department have, the man power to seek out and find these fugitives. The incredibly obvious came into play when the realization of; even if they were able to locate the fugitive and present them with court papers stating that they were being sued, their responsibility would have been to make an arrest and not to present legal papers, and so, the law suit was as ridiculous as the way that it had come into existence in the first place.

Jail overcrowding is the issue and I am trying to present you with a real answer, just because your opinion of me is as jaded as mine is considered to be of you, which BTW is not the case; I think some real solutions are the only possible answer.

You have asked me not to blog here without indicating that I am a bail bondsman so that your readers can understand that I am in fact prejudice in my opinions and I have been very open to that. What you fail to point out in your attempt to undermine my opinions is that in past blogs I have been very much in support of the legalization of drugs, a subject that I also see as ridiculous and a source of massive jail overcrowding, and if this ever happens will most certainly put a crimp in my pocket-book.

The recent changes in Federal policy toward marijuana is a huge step in the right direction and even though most feel it will never happen, our new administration has for the first just received their first wake up call that Americans are beginning to grow tired of the same old song and dance in the governor elections. Drugs are a health issue and vast resources are dedicated to the criminal justice system that should be spent in the direction of health care and education; while decriminalization would not be beneficial to me personally it would have a much greater effect on government and all the rest who benefit from its illegality. The most obvious outcome would be the shut down of penal institutions nationwide and an immediate need to reduce court personnel.

Anyway continue the good fight Scott, I’m with you on almost everything but pretrial release, and sorry to have ruffled your feathers.

Your friendly neighborhood bondsman

Anonymous said...

In response to Rage, appropriate alias BTW

When you present arguments as Grits has in the past concerning the policies of other countries; and me thinks you may have picked up on that; you should brush up on the fact that many are facing huge problems themselves and continue to try and unravel the mess they are now in due to their massive fugitive and recidivism problems.

The other obvious thing simply being that it is an all or nothing policy, so getting out of jail at all is in no way a guarantee.

Houston has more than its fair share of foreign nationals who have experienced our jails and legal system, and again I must assume that unlike yourself since you are obviously not a bail bondsman, you would have considerably less background to work with than I do; but so far over 30 years the concept for them has been “How wonderful,” and it surprises me every single time how someone can be in jail all night long and come out feeling good about the experience simply because they were able to get out so quickly.

Before you go trashing a system that works for you in a world of the presumption of innocence, ask a melting pot of others who experience a world of praying they never end up in jail in their own country.

Your friendly neighborhood bondsman

Anonymous said...

Is the speedy trial law still in effect?

Anonymous said...

To 7:08 AM

The problem as I see it, right or wrong as my opinion may be, is turning to, I repeat is turning to, the incarceration of defendant’s already released on bail that are sent to long lines of other criminal defendant’s already released on bail for hours and hours so that; and Scott will hate me for this (pre-trial release) can drug test them.

This is for starters incredibly expensive and once again tax payers get to fork out the funds; but what I would think should be considered is the fact that these defendant’s are presumed innocent, and locking them up without bail for long periods of time because they come back with a dirty urinalysis serves to compound the jail overcrowding and does little if anything to curb the drug users habits.

I’m not saying that Judges shouldn’t be given this discretion, especially in cases where a defendant is charged with a violent crime, but for the rest, the fact that they are currently being prosecuted I would think presents an already in existence matter of crime and punishment before the court, and the overall outcome of the defendant’s prosecution has very little bearing on drug use, and again I say has even less bearing on their continued drug habits after being adjudicated; it really seems like wasted money, effort and above all jail space.

As for probationers who find themselves back in jail for a new criminal accusation; the warrant issued and the bond set by the judge should give a great amount of consideration to what the defendant is now being charged with and bail set accordingly.

Probationers who find themselves in the realm of technical violations in my humble opinion should be at the top of the list for government pre-trial release (free bonds). While many may be uncaring with regards to their circumstance, many more find themselves financially burdened, or in many ways totally unable to perform the conditions of probation as set out by the court, and when these circumstances prove to be a true possibility; the history of criminal activity, or more importantly the lack of, should give a Judge more than enough reason to modify the probation, the objective here should always be to promote and reward lawful behavior, and if a probationer has demonstrated to the court that they have in fact not been arrested again and are trying to live a productive life; free from unlawful behavior, then they should always be given absolute consideration, every time, all the time, and I would have no problem whatsoever in these circumstances, if judges gave them an immediate personal recognizance bond.

Your friendly neighborhood bondsman

Anonymous said...

Neighborhood Loanshark, I'm pretty sure Grits has already done the research on the rates of fugitives, and they show that you're full of it. If we let every one of the low level and low risk pre-trial folks out on personal bonds, the amount of money saved by not incarcerating all of them for months or years would easily pay to hire additional officers to track down the very few that do.

As for recidivism, pre-trial incarceration has no link to that at all. So add red herrings to your bald-face inaccuracies, of not lies.


Anonymous said...

Then by your own admission you’re saying your own investigation of how things really work consists of zero.

I would also assume then that not only do you not have a clue about what really takes place within the criminal justice system, but without a GPS you would also have difficulty in finding your own way home, let alone begin to try and find any information to back up your thoughtless process, which would no doubt explain the rest of your comment.

That’s very good Rage; outstanding in fact, and thank you for reaffirming my position.

Anonymous said...

Strange to me that when I was called to jury duty recently, along with about two hundred others, the entire panel was released because the case that was set settled. Everyone was released. Now looking at my county numbers (in jail awaiting trial), appears there are hundreds locked up awaiting trial. What's up with that?

Anonymous said...

Is the speedy trial law still in effect?

Yes, the Constitution is still in effect.

Loan Shark, you make several leaps in logic with that last post. Outright jumps, in fact. I'm sure that everything you read reaffirms your position, you're that misguided and self interested.

Take your one-man loan shark PR campaign somewhere else. It's just not working here.


Anonymous said...

You are certainly entitled to your opinion Rage, if you actually have one of your own.

I thought for certain your reply to me would be that it isn’t necessary for you to know your own way home because someone else could take you there.

FYI the cute little tab ringer on your handlebars may come in handy, just keep pushing it someone’s bound to hear the bell and come to your aid, (that means to help you) and another small tid-bit, I have forgotten more about how things work within the criminal justice system than you will ever in your life know.

Anyway I have given my opinion which if you actually took a moment to read, you would realize that my suggestions have been to provide serious answers to serious problems, I do not give commentary here to reply to childish nonsense, if your remarks even merit that, I’m signing off Grits and I apologize for taking up word space in response to this blather.

Anonymous said...

Jackass, your reasons were:

1. They'll run; and
2. They're guilty already.

That may be some thought provoking analysis for a mental giant in your industry, but for the rest of us, we see through your PR campaign.


Anonymous said...

"Disability Insurance said...
Interesting case all things considered."

Isn't this just comment spam?

Anonymous said...

"Is the speedy trial law still in effect?"

You only get a speedy trial if you demand it. The overwhelming majority of defendants don't because they are more likely to be convicted and the punishment will be more severe.

If somehow everyone awaiting trial got together and simultaneously asserted their Constitutional right to a speedy trial the system would totally melt down. Probably greater than 90% of them would be released by default.

Maybe this will actually happen one day as social networking tools spread across the internet.