Sunday, August 14, 2005

Should county government subsidize bail bond companies?

This is the third in a series analyzing Harris County bail policies and their effect on jail overcrowding. See Grits full Harris County jail and bail series linked here.
When one reads of the dramatic shift by Houston's elected judges from releasing defendants on "personal bond," or a promise to appear, to requiring them to post bail in cash, the obvious first question is, Cui bono?, or "Who benefits?" Obviously, elected judges and prosecutors benefit by portraying themselves as "tough on crime" in the next election, but the JMI consulting report hints at another answer -- bail bondsmen. The consultant posed the questions:
First, is it desirable to use the Pretrial Services Agency as a kind of publicly-supported guarantor or service provider for surety bond companies? In cases where a defendant on surety bond is released under special conditions that provide for monitoring and supervision by Pretrial Services, such monitoring and supervision should help ensure the defendant's law-abiding conduct and return for scheduled court appearances. One practical effect of this practice is to reduce the bonding company's risk, at no cost to the bonding company.

Second, to what extent does the pressure to provide supervisory services for defendants released on surety bond (including some defendants who can fairly be characterized as "high risk") tend to divert the agency's staff from performing other essential functions-in particular, (a) the supervision of defendants on personal bond for whom they have direct responsibility; and (b) obtaining and presenting information on low-risk defendants who remain in detention because of inability to post financial bond?
The report makes clear that, in the past, when defendants were released on cash bond, the bonding company took on pretty much full responsibility for their supervision. Today, though, at a time when more defendants than ever in Harris County must pay cash bonds, county Pretrial Services provides substantial supervision over large numbers of bonding agencies' clients. So what justifies the bonding companies' fat fees?

The JMI report never names names, but the authors implicitly accuse surety bond companies of privatizing their fees while Harris County Pretrial Services supervises their clients. The result doesn't just soak defendants and taxpayers, there are also opportunity costs: The policy "divert[s] the ageny's staff from performing other essential functions," especially
identifying low-risk offenders who shouldn't be detained.

If anybody in Houston wanted to take on a fun research project, it'd be interesting to go through the elected judges' contribution and expenditure reports at the Harris County Clerk's elections division to see how often bail bondsmen show up, and how much they give. Those county level contribution reports aren't online. Maybe next time I'm there ...


Anonymous said...

Comparing your three blogs on Harris County's incarceration rate to your opinion about absconders [August 11 blog] raises a question: Can the high rate of incarcerated defendents in Harris County be related to the low-level of absconders from Harris County's community supervision? Just wondering.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's a VERY good question. Right now, I'm trying to get some clarifying information about the absconder numbers, which I'm being told aren't apples-to-apples across agencies and may not be accurate. Apparently the absconder numbers for some agencies are annual, and for others include absconders going back many years. Hopefully I can nail it down and post on that today or tomorrow. Thanks for raising it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Turns out those absconder numbers aren't accurate, or at least, aren't comparable. I posted a correction here.

Good catch, anonymous!

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Bonds are issued to individuals that are in need of them through a variety of means. In many cases a bondsmen will be used. These individuals, or company, will work to have their defendant released, normally within a few hours. They will charge a fee of about 10% to use their services. If a judge sets bail for an individual at $5000, the bondsmen will post the bail once the defendant and the bondsman come to an agreement.

In most cases, the company has a working relationship with the court system in which they will provide a blanket coverage to them. Instead of exchanging property or cash for each defendant that is working with them, they are released under the condition and agreement that the company will pay in case they do not appear for court.

In cases where there is a need for a large amount of bail needed, individuals can use a bail bondsmen for help. For example, if bond for a criminal defendant is set at $100,000, the defendant would need to pay for the bail at the amount of $10,000 as this is ten percent and the fee charged. Since this fee is not refunded, the individual could place the $10,000 on a mortgage on their home if they did not have the funds available.

Individuals needing funds quickly can and should rely on the help of these individuals and companies. In some states, such as Illinois, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Oregon, there is no commercial sale of bonds. Yet, in other states, these opportunities are available for individuals that need them.what i think is that ofcourse they should be subsized by the goc.

Los Angeles Bail Bonds said...

I agree with the above poster on this subject. It's complicated, especially for someone from the outside looking in.