Thursday, September 15, 2005

Bail policies juice Tarrant jail overcrowding

Like most local lockups in Texas, the Tarrant County Jail is overcrowded. But a draft report by the National Center for State Courts' consulting service aimed at finding solutions, obtained by Grits under the Public Information Act, ignored the key questions about how local bail policies contribute to jail overcrowding. (UPDATE: Report and district clerk's response/comments linked here)

As in Harris County, much of Tarrant's overincarceration crisis appears to be a self-inflicted wound. Harris' jail overcrowding largely stems from overuse of cash and surety bonds by local judges. In 1994,
according to a recent consultant's report, Harris County released a whopping 97% of defendants on "personal bond" (essentially a promise to appear) while today that number has declined to 39% (see the first chart in this post).

In Tarrant County, by contrast, just 16% of defendants are released on personal bond. The rest must pay to be released, or sit in jail awaiting trial. That means 84% of defendants' cases are being processed through cash bonds or bail bondsmen, not the county Pretrial Services division.

Though consultants didn't provide enough hard data to tell for sure, it's likely Tarrant's jail overcrowding crisis could be mostly resolved just by increasing the proportion of defendants eligible for personal bond to current Harris County levels. Arguably, even higher rates of personal-bond-release could be achieved without harming public safety.

In most places, Pretrial Services assess defendants to determine what risks they pose and whether release on personal bond is warranted. In Tarrant County, Pretrial Services doesn't even see most defendants. "The lack of reliable information regarding defendants" can lead to "unnecessary detention of defendants who pose little or no significant risk of nonappearance or dangerousness to the community," the consultants wrote. "[E]xperiences in other jurisdictions suggest that with appropriate systems in place to remind defendants of upcoming court dates, the proportion of defendants released on personal bonds in Tarrant county could be increased without having a negative impact on FTA [failure-to-appear] rates or community safety."

In a bizarre twist, though, the consultants claimed it would be
cheaper for the county to rely more on bail bondsmen than on Pretrial Services. That's because their analysis only looked at the narrow cost of supervising defendants -- not the overall cost including paying for incarceration pending trial, or buildng a new $80 million jail. "If Tarrant County's goal relative to the pretrial release of defendants is solely driven by fiscal concerns," they wrote, "then clearly Pretrial Services should be abolished and the county should rely exclusively on private bonding agents."

But that's absurd. Relying on bail bondsmen may let the Pretrial Services' budget remain low, but the extra costs for incarcerating people who can't make bail more than surpass that meager sum. Indeed, a few paragraphs down from the above ridiculous comment, consultants mention that increased use of Pretrial Services "could expedite the release of individuals on personal bond, thereby reducing the need to occupy precious jail space with low-risk defendants." If costs for "precious jail space" are included, Pretrial Services starts to look like a really good deal.

The solution to Tarrant's jail overcrowding problem is simple, even if the consultants didn't have the cojones to propose it: Allow Pretrial Services to screen every defendant, and start to release those on personal bond who pose low risks of flight and future dangerousness.

See also: Tarrant County Bail Politics Keeps Jail Full


Anonymous said...

Follow the money. What would be the incentive for vastly increasing the income of bail bondsmen? Kickbacks.

Anonymous said...

Ah, bail bondsmen -- the bottom-feeders of the criminal justice fish tank.

You can bet that behind the scenes in various counties and in Austin, they will fight like crazy to restrict pre-trial releases that circumvent the need for their services!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Before Katrina there was a developing payola scandal involving bail bondsmen and judges in New Orleans, see here. I don't 100% know what it was about, at root, but I wonder if the case might shed some light on the influence and agenda of the bonding companies. (I also wonder if the case will still be prosecuted now that all the evidence, etc., has been destroyed.)

Anonymous said...

My friend currently sits in Co., bail denied by judge; his crime? Hasn't caught up on court costs/fees from Deferred Adjudication plea. Maybe if he were a serial pedophile he'd be walking the streets by now.

Anonymous said...

My fiance' has been sitting in co for 6months charged with a crime he did't commit the alleged victim in the case a signed an afidavit stating my finance did't commit the crime, but yet the D.A. doesn't want to drop the case. I ask why tie up all the tax payers money on a bogus case? You see now they have moved him out to Greenbay which is the worst fecility i have ever seen maybe the should spend some money there!!

Anonymous said...

I think the reason the criminal justice system is shy to get rid of private surety bail is based on the fact that IT WORKS! This article fails to address that private surety bail has a higher accountability rate and has a decreased failure to appear rate over PTR. Here are some facts that are often overlooked:

According to a study published in the Journal of Law & Economics, “Defendants released on surety bond are 28 percent less likely to fail to appear than similar defendants released on their own recognizance, and if they do fail to appear, they are 53 percent less likely to remain at large for extended periods of time.”
National Center for Policy Analysis, a highly reputable think tank recognized and utilized by the federal government when comparing public versus private bonding systems, found:
1. “Fugitive rate for defendants out on private bail is under 1%.”
2. “Bail agents have a 0.8% fugitive rate versus 8.0% for public bail.”
And in another study found on The National Criminal Justice Reference Service:
In 2001, almost 80% took some action to follow up with defendants who were categorized as “Failure to Appear”. But with a survey over 3 different time periods, the numbers have decreased drastically. (Note: PTR began in the 1960’s)

In 1979: 55% of programs reported that they sent a letter to the defendant, 80% called on the phone, and 45% made home visits.

1989: 43% sent letter, 64% called on the phone, and 17% made home visits.

2001: 25% sent letter, 52% called on the phone, and 12% made home visits.

Although, yes I agree that bail fees can be expensive and more often than not, defendants can not afford to pay a bondsmen, BUT many fail to recognize that when defendants use a bondsmen they are more likely to show up for court, which reduces the chances of them committing another crime, which in turn RELIEVES jail overcrowding and the need for tax-payer dollars. Furthermore, bondsmen are held physically and financially responsible for defendants, whereas neither PTR staff nor Judges are ever held responsible for a defendant who fails to appear.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To 9:38 - Surety bonds also "work" to keep the jail full of people who cannot pay. And it's funny that other countries can solve this problem without commercial bail bonds, which are almost entirely an American institution.

Also, NCPA is a partisan, conservative think tank out of Dallas, not some neutral arbiter. That doesn't discredit their findings, but they're not the centrists you describe them as.