Sunday, August 14, 2005

Extra bail conditions: When tough on crime means tough on taxpayers

This is the second in a series analyzing Harris County bail policies and their contribution to jail overcrowding. See Bail blunders boost bulging Harris jail population.

Expanded use of "special conditons" as bail requirements are another big cost-driver undermining Harris County's bail system, according to the recent Justice Management Institute (JMI) consultant's report. Historically, most people who bonded out of the Harris County Jail were placed on "general supervision" while awaiting trial, requiring defendants to comply with the following standard conditions of release:
  • Phone check in every two weeks.
  • Call in the day before court.
  • In-person check-in on court date.
  • Notify agency of change of address, phone or employment.
  • No travel outside county.
  • No contact with complaining witness.
Pretty basic stuff. In recent years, though, local judges wanting to establish their tough-on-crime credentials have taken to tacking on numerous "special conditions," including urinalysis (the most common additional requirement), submitting to home confinement and electronic monitoring, abiding by an evening curfew, and "stay away" orders forbidding contact with alleged victims or witnesses. According to the Justice Management Institute:
While the average number of "general supervision" cases has decreased [between 1994 and 2004], the average number of defendants supervised for compliance with special conditions at any one time has increased from 383 to 1,202. Because the amount of work and skills needed for supervising defendants on special conditions are far greater than for supervising those on general conditions, this has meant significantly greater workloads for agency staff responsible for supervision of defendants.
It also meant more bail revocations for failure to comply, which boosts jail overcrowding and generates extra costs, with little benefit to public safety. "Compliance with some of the special conditions imposed by judges -- including submitting to urinalysis tests, abiding by curfew restrictions, and abstaining from alcohol use -- can be ... difficult to monitor, requiring substantially more staff effort," reported JMI And what's the result of that extra staff effort? More opportunities for defendants to have their bail revoked and wind up sitting in jail awaiting trial.

That means judges who want us to think they are tough on crime are really being tough on Harris County residents' pocketbooks.

Urinalysis requirements in particular, while popular among prosecutors and judges, take up a huge amount of staff time and cause delays throughout the system. Presently in Harris County, "Turnaround times for receiving the results are repotedly very lengthy -- ten days to three weeks if the results of the test are negative, and as long as four to eight weeks if the test of a urine sample is initially positive and confirmatory analysis must be conducted," JMI reported. Fees by defendants cover only a fraction of drug testing costs.

Moreover, forensic lab testing in Harris County has been notoriously unreliable. Who knows if you can even trust the lab results when you get them?

The most frustrating difficulty with the imposition of "special conditions" is that they vary from judge to judge: Some use them extensively, some hardly at all. That means when new money is put into pre-trial supervision, a handful of judges quickly soak up all the funds. According to JMI:

Judges vary widely in the frequency with which they call upon Pretrial Services to monitor defendants' compliance with special conditions. For example, during the first six months of 2004, one County Court judge imposed a total of 1,240 additional conditions on 301 different defendants. At the other end of the spectrum, during the same period another County Court judge imposed 97 such conditions (of which 87 were simply requirements for telephone check-in) on 94 different defendants. The range of variability in the use of special conditions is similarly wide among judges of the District Courts.
That difference is so great one almost wonders whether the distinctions might raise Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection) concerns -- after all, if you and I are arrested and jailed on similar charges, under similar circumstances, there's no justifiable reason one of us should be subjected to urinalyses and a curfew while the other merely checks in by phone every two weeks. JMI recommended that
The courts should seek to develop cost-effective common policies concerning when drug testing should be ordered, for what types of drugs, how and by whom the tests should be conducted, what responses should be made to test results, and when (under what circumstances) the drastic step of revoking bond should be taken.
Indeed, with inmates sleeping on the floor of the jail and no place to house defendants whose bond has been revoked, perhaps the policy should change to require urinalysis very rarely, especially since the county can't afford to revoke anybody's bail, anyway, at least for a dirty urinalysis.

Imposing "special conditions" without special circumstances soaks the taxpayers, with little benefit besides letting judges and prosecutors grandstand as being "tough on crime." I doubt taxpayers would approve if they knew the truth of it.

Next: Subsidies for bail bondsmen.


jdallen said...

This post got me to wondering - how much does a urinalysis screen cost? We are beginning to test - unconstitutionally, IMHO - students, athletes, employees, how much are we paying for this? And could we not use it more profitably elsewhere?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hey, JD, thanks for stopping by.

I don't know about the dollar cost, but whatever the per unit cost, you can tack onto it a lot of staff time and extra time on each case spent waiting on the analysis to come back. Even if it's constitutional to drug test folks who are out on bail, it's not practical or useful, and IMO, with few exceptions, it doesn't increase public safety a whit. Best,

jdallen said...

Dude! I stop by almost every day. I just don't always SAY anything.

Anonymous said...

after 6 years on probation for a non drug or alcohol related crime
(white collar)500 hours community service,total restitution i did the crime and i have payed for it
but in the end i absconded...why!
after 60 plus urines it turned out
i turned up positive 3 times over the 6 years with traces of alcohol
...result revoked probation

Anonymous said...

Heres my situation:I got raided at my home in May and a half a gram of meth was found in my side of the house. My ex-boyfriend lived on the other side of the house and was caught with 1.7 grams.It was decided I would take the rap for both of us.I was charged with possession.I bonded out and he couldn't get the money up so I covered him and the bonds lady has my land title,jewelry....I get put on the presentence probation and the 2 times I see my PO all she seems to care is trying to get me to confess to intent.I told her I have a possession charge so lets just go from there.I called my attorney after the 2nd time.So when I go to sentencing court and on her report there are like 15 ommitted,lying,incorrect statements and that gets brought in court by me and nothing really gets said by the judge.I get 5 years probation and my ex gets his dismissed.Afterward my attorney told me to move to another county because they are crooked here and the lab here is real bad.....I had to borrow 2500.00 and my ex's court appt. attorney got his information from my lawyer.My ex still owes the bonds lady 1650.00 fortunatly she owns the property next to me and I will get my stuff back when she gets paid. My problem is my ex broke alot of my items close to 80 or so which I didn't know until a couple of weeks ago and I fell off the wagon cause I directed my frustation and anger at myself which was stupid on my part and I have to live up to my mistakes and when I called him to complain about broken or missing things he texts me not to ever call him again. Buts thats another story. I get told Dec 16th that I had 1 dirty UA for alcohol on Nov 2 and 2 for the other afterwards.I had some drinks Oct 29th,the day before sentencing and got a UA Nov 3rd and they say I was positive for alcohol. No way.I have been feeling very disallusioned because the cops in the raid stole jewelry,a laptop and some other things (the proof is in their pictures they took)and one of the detectives who was here told my ex which two cops would of done it.They also left my front door wide open and threw my house keys on the hood of my car and did some vandelism on my car.So what I am asking are PO's suspose to tell you after the results are in that your UA is dirty and or let them pile up and tell you a month and a half later? Is it justifiable to complain about the presentence lies by the 1st PO.Also I know somebody that got caught with 3.5 of meth and 2 papers of heroin and got 3 years probation(different judge).I hadn't gotten to counseling yet cause they hadn't got me started yet.I do need counseling but I have been feeling very disallusioned and depressed.I do 4 UA's a month and 2 office visits a month.One more thing,I knew my ex for 30 years and you can't even trust someone you've known for long. I take asthma medicine too.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to add a MTR was sent in but it hasn't gone through yet.