Sunday, August 07, 2011

Harris Distict Clerk fails to collect court costs from bond companies

Remarkable. From the Houston Chronicle:
Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel has not collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in court costs since taking office in January because, critics say, it would hurt business for bail bondsmen who contributed to his campaign.

"He's nervous about doing it because bondsmen supported him a great deal during his election so he wants cover," said Judge Mike Fields, chairman of the county board that licenses bail bondsmen. "No individual or group of individuals should come before your obligation to the citizens of this county when you're an elected official — no matter how tough it is."

The court costs are generated by lawsuits filed against bail jumpers and bondsmen to have bail money forfeited after a defendant fails to appear for court.

Fields said not collecting the money during tight economic times was "baffling." He said the court costs, now set at $8, are supposed to be about $230, a move that would raise more than $1.5 million a year for Harris County.

Fields said Daniel told him he did not want to "levy a tax" on bail bondsmen who contributed to his election.

Daniel acknowledged he has called the fee a "tax" because it raises the amount bail bondsmen charge defendants, but denied being influenced by more than $10,000 in campaign contributions from bondsmen.
Here are my questions: Have the bail bond companies been levying the fee on their clients and pocketing the difference? How would anyone know? And will bond companies be required to pay back fees or only those going forward? Bail bondsmen exercise a great deal of behind-the-scenes political clout in local criminal justice politics, but I've never heard of county officials' deference extending quite this far.

MORE: From Off the Kuff.

15 comments:

KatyDid said...

In general, I have to say Chris Daniel has a tenuous grasp on the concept of money.

I mean, HOW much did he and his mom spend to buy him this position last year?

He must be fairly confident that he and his mom and his bail bondsman buddies can use this as a springboard for buying higher office…

Anonymous said...

Regardless of your political persuasion, this is further proof that Loren Jackson would have been a better choice for District Clerk

Anonymous said...

The must be over 25,000 oven criminal warrants in Harris County. How many of them have had the bond collected on them?
It's all about the money in Harris County government.

Soronel Haetir said...

I would think such non-collection would be approaching criminal dereliction of official duties. I would think such court fee collection would not have any discretionary choice attached.

Of course, I also think it somewhat odd that a clerk would be elected rather than just a hired employee of the court, but that's US (and apparently particularly Texas) politics for you.

Anonymous said...

The whole bail bond system is primarily about making money for both the bondsman and the counties. The federal system doesn't take money for bonds and seems to work just fine without it.

titfortat said...

The confusing part of the story is the statement made by the Assistant District Attorney where she makes it clear that the District Clerk has no discretion in the matter (period), I would think that the District Clerk’s role is to simply take in the money and record it for the county, so I’m not certain why all the fuss and finger pointing in the direction of what appears to be a more or less uninvolved party. Perhaps I misinterpreted what I read in the article but that’s sure what it sounds like.

And, as for the bondsmen getting what appears to be a small bit of relief in cost associated with a bond forfeiture, the only reason they would have to pony up only $8.00 in court cost would be because they were successful in apprehending a fugitive that failed to appear in court and I would think that a criminal court judge would be quite satisfied with results like that rather than unhappy or frustrated.

In truth Harris County throws away in excess of twenty times the 1.5 million he points to of uncollected court cost that’s sorely or should I say surely needed in these days of woe and want through the funding of pretrial release and the in jail courts handling the class C misdemeanors.

Over 200 class C misdemeanants were immediately, (well now that it takes forever to get through the pretrial red tape) as immediately as is now possible (24 hours), released from the Harris County Jail for time served (last night), this same practice goes on in Harris County every night give or take 50 class C’s each night in either direction.

These class C defendants made bail for years, they were released from jail much quicker, they made their court appearances afterwards and then they paid their fines and a huge part of this was because they were out on bail and someone was responsible for their court appearance.

And, as for those that fail to appear in more serious cases that are on pretrial bonds; when they fail to appear there is no court cost, nobody pays the bond, nobody is responsible for going after the fugitive and taxpayers get to pay for (this).

The majority of pretrial bonds represent those who always made bail at no cost to taxpayers quickly and easily all for the purpose of relieving jail overcrowding. Let’s make sure we all understand this, criminal defendants that were already getting out of jail quickly and easily at no cost now cost taxpayers millions of dollars and take 24 hours to get out, the question should be why are the taxpayers paying for their slow release not why aren’t bondsmen paying more court cost.

I don’t know judge; sometimes you just have to ask yourself “Who’s robbing this train Jesse?”

Spin it anyway you want Grits as the saying goes, “It is what it is.”

Gritsforbreakfast said...

tit, if bondsmen in every other county can pay the fee when your clients don't show up, why not y'all? What makes Harris exceptional that the law applies to everyone else but them, so much so that judges should be "quite satisfied with results" from not following it?

You entered a business ensuring people get to court. You accept a fee from the client but they don't show up. But that should somehow be a freebie for you? Where's the moral hazard in that business? It's like in Dallas where the bondsman have millions in unpaid, uncollectable bonds on old clients. At some point if there's no risk when the clients don't show up, it's not a business model anymore, just a government handout.

On Class Cs, it's silly to require bond for a ticket-only offense. Sorry. That's just another handout to bondsmen, it wouldn't make the system run any smoother, just bleed defendants more.

Thomas Hobbes said...

And tit, while we're just chatting here, there are a few points I'd like to address . . .

If you're suggesting that the District Clerk is "more or less an uninvolved party," you're either a fool, uninformed, or simply being disingenuous. The District Clerk is a fee officer who is charged with collecting the fee, regardless of his personal opinions about its propriety. That's what the fuss is about; he doesn't have the right to set the fee or to choose to not collect the fee.

I don't know where your suggestion about the $30 million (20 x 1.5M) comes from. I can only assume you pulled it from your back . . . ground.

Regardless of the judges' satisfaction, the public would be satisfied if the bondsmen paid the fees that are owed and, while we're on that topic, we'd also appreciate it if the bondsmen would pay 100% of the bond amount on the bonds that are forfeited. The bail industry constantly claims that they pay off 100% of the amount, but that's . . . well , , , that's just a lie, plain and simple. Records indicate that the amount actually paid generally doesn't exceed 20% of the face amount of the bonds.

There's nothing else to say about Class C misdemeanors. Grits has it right.

And as for defendants on a personal bond, the defendant who made the agreement with the court is the responsible party and the DA is responsible for enforcing the bond forfeiture - just as with bail bondsmen. The defendant can be sued (just like a bail bondsman) and statutorily authorized court costs will attach.

Under Texas law, bail bondsmen do not have the exclusive right to arrange for a defendant's release from jail. They have the right to an opportunity to arrange release. There's a huge difference.

john said...

You mean the Clerk is not charging the fee? Is there no oversight, again? Can he choose who to charge, or not?
If I got $10 grand, would I not care? Politics beats working.
This region, esp. Harris Co., seems to always pay SOMEONE to be outside the law. Justice is always underrated, yet overpriced.
The Clerk, if influenced by special interests, might as well be called The District Legislator.

titfortat said...

For starters bail bondsmen have always paid the fees associated with court cost pertaining bond forfeitures in Harris County. The (reduction) of court cost stems from bondsmen asking for an accounting of what truly is the cost to the court since it has continued to rise year after year and apparently that has yet to be determined. This controversy took place before the current District Clerk took office. And, what has apparently been determined by those who (are) in charge of assessing and collecting the cost is that the amount in question (the true cost) is (in question) and has yet to be determined, but as the article suggests it may be determined very soon.

No one is asking for a freebie, they are asking for a true accounting and that should be considered to be a fair and equitable position to take by any standards.

And, in keeping with fair and equitable treatment as pointed out in the article the person ultimately responsible for paying the court cost associated with a bond forfeiture is the defendant and the defendants guarantor.
There’s more than one possibility associated with a person’s failure to appear and in most cases the bondsman is not dealing with a fugitive but with a person that has had any number of things happen to them that created their failure to appear.

So what this means in essence is that when traffic backs up on the freeway and a client is 10 minutes late for court and does not answer the docket call the District Attorney’s office moves for bond forfeiture and it is then granted by the judge; a lawsuit then initiates to collect the full amount of bail.

This is an extreme example since most courts are lenient, but for those who have been late to court a second time which happens every day the courts are not so lenient.

And, in those particular cases which happen every day in Harris County the bondsman and the defendant are left with three choices, hire an attorney to go before the judge and request a bond reinstatement, post a new bail bond which is always set much higher than the original amount, or go to jail. In many cases a bond reinstatement is granted provided that the court cost associated with the lawsuit pertaining to the bond forfeiture is paid.

This is where (if) the court cost is assessed in a true and correct manner meaning (this really is what it cost for Harris County to file a law suit, and then subsequently and immediately set the law suit aside and dismiss it by reinstating a bail bond) the defendant can realize fair and equitable treatment.

In many cases raising money to get a loved one out of jail is anything but expected expense and when that expense is as much or more than the cost of the original bond because of a mishap creating a failure to appear again in (many) cases a person that has no intention of being a fugitive becomes one out of the fear of going to jail because they do not have the cash right now today. The record will show a great deal more bond reinstatements have occurred since the court cost has been reduced.

Obviously if the person is truly not trying to abscond and failed to appear for other reasons many of which are sometimes beyond their control especially in a city the size of Houston it would seem only fair to try and accommodate their future desire to continue on with their defense as a free person at as little cost as possible. Whatever the cost is the bondsman will no doubt pay when they are required to do so.

titfortat said...

In response to your class c comment, the only reason bail is required is because they failed to appear after receiving a citation.

And the fact is and it is undisputable that those out on private bail have an excellent appearance ratio. The city of Houston generates millions of dollars through the bail bond industry’s advertisement of and implementation of posting bail bonds and getting defendants to court that otherwise would pay little attention to their traffic ticket warrant.

As for the Harris County jail and their class c policies I’m not suggesting the system would run any smoother, my point is that it now takes 24 hours for a person to be released and they cannot be released any other way, where in the past it took less than eight hours and the defendant didn’t miss work and didn’t spend the night in jail, and in most cases if the family can get them out they would prefer to do so, but they can’t because the system continues to find ways to bog down the release process through pretrial and in jail courts. A smooth operation has very little to do with responsibility, as slow as they have made things I’m sure with all the tax money they get they feel they have a very smooth little operation going on.

All of this is done in the name of jail overcrowding but the ones who have always kept the jail full are still sitting there. The County continues to spend and continues to lose millions of dollars each year to address what was never the problem in the first place by arbitrarily releasing class C’s and class B’s with, the result being a huge black hole that only does one thing clear the books of the class C’s and release class B’s that have always been the first to get out (immediately) anyway, and suck in huge amounts of taxpayer money to do it!

This liberal policy generates zero for the cost of arrest, incarceration, and in jail adjudication for class C’s that once generated millions, (I agree, why arrest them at all?), at least then the taxpayer wouldn’t be paying for it!

And, for the taxpayer to pay additional millions to release Class B’s that have never been the cause of jail overcrowding and in doing so place a stranglehold on the time of release in order to implement their program is big government at its best.

They have fixed a problem that never existed and created a problem that never existed and they have spent millions upon millions to make it happen.

And, the big government answer to this ridiculous debacle is to point fingers at bail bondsman and insinuate that they are an unnecessary evil when the truth is, they outperform government bail, (they always have), they cost taxpayers nothing, they very much help relieve jail overcrowding, they (do) pay when the defendant fails to appear, and just so everyone understands why they outperform government bail it’s because they are actually accountable for their actions.

titfortat said...

Thomas, I was simply mirroring what the Assistant District Attorney was quoted as saying in the article
However, she said “the law clearly outlines that the district clerk has no discretion in either the amount of the fees to charge or the charging of those fees.”

Yet the article appears to suggest otherwise and apparently so do you.

As for the 30 mil., I don’t know lets add up 200 class C releases per day that at one time use to get out of jail then go to court with the majority paying fines. In fact let’s take half that amount with the average fine being $300.00, wow your right that’s only 10.5 mil., lets cut that in half with the average fine only being $150.00, now we are only looking at 5 million. Then we should add in the cost of each arrest, the incarceration cost and the cost to keep a 24 hour court running. Then throw in the whole Harris County pretrial release office, their equipment, employees, and insurance cost and the 24 hour court associated with their smooth little show for the Class B’s, and last but not least the money they have never collected a single cent of for their failures to appear, actually 30 million might be a conservative estimate.

And FYI, if the bondsman apprehends the fugitive within the lawful time frame given by law you are correct they do not pay the full judgment, however in every case where they were unable to perform they paid 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. The only exception would be those bondsmen that either went out of business because of their inability to pay or those that have died.

Anonymous said...

"The city of Houston generates millions of dollars through the bail bond industry’s ...:

Like I said, its all about money. Taking no money works for the federal system and that makes everyone equal. You are treated the same whether you have money or don't. But, if we went to that type of system the bail bondsmen would be out of business, the judges would be deprived of significant campaign contributions (and probably some kickbacks), and the county's would make less money. Let's just be honest and admit that the bail bond system has little to with justice and everything to do with money.

titfortat said...

Let’s see mandatory sentencing guidelines that lasted twenty years that mandated the Federal Courts to dish out the same lengthy prison sentence as punishment for one gram of crack cocaine as they did for one hundred grams of powder cocaine, locking up for years a hugely disproportionate amount of blacks, and since the mid 1980’s continually locking up pretrial defendants for drug offenses (without) bail as their pretrial detainees and Federal prisoners have done nothing but grow and grow and grow in number.

Yeah that’s on my wish list too, let’s do it the Federal way it’s soooo equal for everyone.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of B-Flat boys, “I’m in the jail now….., I’m in the jail house now.

Anonymous said...

what the article failed to mention was that Mr Daniel implemented the statutory fee the following Monday. That had been in the works for a week and was waiting on final approval from the County Attorney. The article was a hit piece--plain and simple. The facts twisted for that purpose.

Furthermore, the writer failed to mention that the bail-bondsmen were threatening to sue the county if the fee had been charged. When collected, the county only gets to keep a portion of the fee--the rest going to the state. If the county had lost, it was possible the county would have to refund the FULL difference--money it doesn't have.

Since the fee is statutory, the bondsmen would have to get a successful injunction to divert mandatory fees collected into a court registry (or to not collect at all during litigation).

Essentially, Mr. Daniel did the prudent thing to FULLY investigate the facts and the LAW and then implemented the fee. He became aware of the mess that Loren Jackson left him, months after taking office and getting his feet wet.

And the fact that KatyDID or several other Anonymous posters are willing to ignore that Loren failed to implement the fee himself during his last three months in office--nor did he instruct his staff to inform Mr Daniel of the issue (an obvious set up)--shows that their opinion is obviously biased and hypocritical.

Good government requires due diligence, investigation, and rational decision-making. That is clearly what occurred here.

Finally, the fact that not even the chronicle editorial board can get Mr Daniel's job title right, shows you their worth in putting out this article.