Monday, December 12, 2005

Tarrant County Bail Politics Keeps Jail Full

On a Monday, I was arrested.
On Tuesday, they locked me in the jail.
On Wednesday, my trial was attested.
On Thursday they said "guilty"
and the judge's gavel fell.

- Johnny Cash, Stripes Around My Shoulders

Today people sit around awaiting trial for so long in Texas county jails that if the Man in Black had written that song in 2005, the days of the week would have to be changed to names of months. I've argued previously that requiring high bail from low-flight-risk defendants who can't afford it is the main reason Texas' jails are too full. Nowhere is that more true than in Tarrant County (Fort Worth is the county seat), where just 16% of arrestees get out on personal bond, and local bail bondsmen have hired former Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis to pressure county officials to keep it that way.

In the
current edition of the Fort Worth Weekly, ("Jailhouse Blues: Who benefits from Tarrant County's flawed pretrial release system?" Dec. 7) reporter Dan McGraw examines this favorite Grits subject. McGraw turned onto the story after spending three days himself in the county jail until he could borrow $5,000 for bail for lapsed child support. He found that many inmates were there because they couldn't make bond for for low-level misdemeanors and non-violent offenses. Most could have been freed, he discovered, if Tarrant County had a more robust system for assigning "personal bonds," which is a promise to the court to appear instead of paying cash to a bonding agent at a private business. Wrote McGraw:
I kept thinking one thing: If Tarrant County is so squeezed for jail beds — in fact, is considering spending $100 million or more on a new jail — then why are all these non-scary guys staying in here so long? Especially since — as I later learned — there is a county program specifically aimed at getting non-violent, low-flight-risk inmates out of jail?

It’s a question that keeps raising its ugly head among judges, elected county officials, criminal defense lawyers, and the bail bond industry in Tarrant County. The program called Tarrant County PreTrial Services (TCPS) uses personal recognizance bonds — which cost $20 or 3 percent of the bond — to get those non-violent misdemeanor and felony inmates out of the jail and off the county room-and-board bill. But even while the county is debating where to build and how much to spend on a new jail, the idea of making better use of the beds doesn’t seem to be part of the discussion.
The failure to use this program has human costs, McGraw noted, as well as financial ones. At the facility where McGraw was incarcerated,
most of the inmates were there on misdemeanor or lower-level felony charges. Actually, those are the things they got arrested for. The reason that most of them, days or weeks or months after the arrest, were still in jail is that they couldn’t make bond. Like the college kid who was in for possession of less than a gram of pot, but because it was his second offense, had had his bond set at $4,000. The bonding companies wanted $1,000 cash in order to put up the $4,000; because he couldn’t swing that, he’d had to drop out of the University of North Texas and had been in the joint for three weeks.
So in this case, a kid had to drop out of school because he couldn't post bond for a tiny amount of pot. Are Tarrant County citizens safer or less safe as a result? Did that help or hurt the economy? (If he doesn't go back to school, the young man's lifelong earning potential, statistically, will be lower.) That's just bad public policy on its face -- requiring high bail ruined this kid's life in a way that's totally out of proportion with the alleged offense.

What's more, there's no evidence that increasing use of personal bonds in Tarrant County would reduce public safety. The failure-to-appear rate for people who pay a bail bondsman in Tarrant is about 16%, McGraw noted, while only 4.5% of those on personal bond failed to show up in court in 2005. The director of Tarrant's pretrial services program, Michelle Brown, said, "Part of the reason for that low number is that we make them come into our offices once a month, or even weekly, depending on the case. Give us a few more staff members and the ability to release a few more people, and the failure-to-appear [rate] won’t change.”

The Tarrant County Commissioners Court, ultimately, is responsible for understaffing the pretrial services division and restricting the agency's access to inmates. "Brown said the Tarrant program is one of the most restrictive in the state. For example, other counties do not limit their program only to their own residents, and many make it available to people with minor prior records," which Tarrant does not.

McGraw's sources also pointed out how excessive use of bonding agents cost the county even more money in indigent defense costs, which have exploded recently in Tarrant compared to other large counties.
Fort Worth criminal defense lawyer Mark Daniel ... said the way pre-trial services is used here wastes millions of dollars in public money. “What we are doing is setting high bonds for people with minor offenses, and then they spend all the money they have to get out,” Daniel said. “The public then has to pay for indigent defense lawyers.” ...

“The absurdity of this situation is more than apparent,” Daniel wrote in a letter to commissioners in May. “Under this system, a person charged with a criminal offense pays a bail bondsman to secure release from jail and then is often left without sufficient resources to retain counsel. The citizens of Tarrant County are then left to foot the bill for court-appointed counsel.”
I was gratified to see Tarrant judges speaking up to support more aggressive use of pretrial services and personal bonds, since as I've argued before, most solutions to jail overcrowding require their cooperation, or at least their acquiescence.
District Judge Daryl Coffey, who handles misdemeanor cases, figures that about 70 percent of the defendants who come before him have gotten bonds from the private sector. “If you have a job and live here, and it is a non-violent offense, and you have ties to the community, you should be out immediately in most cases,” he said. “These people should never even be booked into a jail, but a lot of them are. By the time they get into my court, some have already bonded out, but some haven’t been able to. Those jail beds need to be used efficiently and effectively for people who need to be in jail. The violent offenders need to be in jail with high bonds, because the community needs to be protected. But the rapist costs the same to incarcerate as a hot-check writer.”

District Judge Robert Gill, who handles mostly felony cases, also feels the pre-trial services program needs to be expanded. “We should be using [the program] in a more aggressive way,” Gill said. “I think staffing levels might need to be brought up higher, so that more people can be found who qualify.”
When the judge overseeing these low-level cases thinks most defendants he sees should never have been booked into the jail, it's hard to see the argument for spening $100 million on a new one. So why not at least try expanding pre-trial services instead of saddling taxpayers with all that new debt? McGraw was told the answer is the political clout of the bail bonding agents.
one judge who didn’t want his name used said the power of the bond business is a major part of the problem. “When you are running for office here, and you are perceived as someone who either wants bond reduction or more personal recognizance releases, the bond companies come up with money and force against you,” he said.

“But we need to have a lot of programs that allow people out without bail,” the judge continued. “If we have a DUI case, maybe we can have that person enroll in an alcohol prevention program before they come to trial. That can be part of the pre-trial services release at a low cost. We can have lower-level personal cash bonds — maybe $100 to $250 for a misdemeanor — that the defendants get back when they go to trial. How it works now is that a defendant has to come up with a large amount of bond money to get out, and that is the only thing on their mind at that time. We’re causing hardships for people who don’t deserve it, overcrowding the jails, and the only people making money off this are the bonding agents.” (emphasis added)
That last bit, coming from a judge who is afraid to speak out publicly, tells volumes about the political environment in which these decisions are being made. I hope McGraw's next step is to examine bonding agents' campaign contributions to judges and county officials, including the ones most aggressively shilling for the bondsmen's interests, and to file open records requests to document communications between the bonding agents' lobbyist Gib Lewis and local officials.

Tarrant is still a Republican county, for the most part, but this isn't a partisan issue -- there's nothing conservative about using government institutions to service the bottom line of special interests who make big campaign contributions. Thankfully, some Tarrant County officials are more committed to doing justice and protecting the taxpayer than to carrying political water for the bail bond industry.
Judge Coffey likens the criminal booking process to a hospital emergency room. “If you have one person with a cut finger and another patient suffering from a serious heart attack, the hospital treats them very differently,” Coffey said. “The person with the cut finger gets a bandage and instructions for follow-up care and is sent home. The heart attack patient has to stay in the hospital for his own good.

“So many times in our court system here, we are treating the inmates with minor charges very similarly to the ones with serious charges,” he said. “We have to get better at doing criminal justice triage. I am not for letting serious offenders out. But I am pro-taxpayer on this one. Because of the way this system works right now, we have people being confined to the jail — some for just a few days, others for weeks and months — who are not dangerous and pose no threat to the community. These people show up at a very high rate for their court appearances. We have new ways to monitor them. We need to make the system work, so that people who do not need to be confined are not.”
Thank heavens for Judge Coffey and his judicial brethren quoted in the article -- most politicians (and they're elected judges, after all) would rather take the bail bondsmen's money and go along instead admitting to the public that the emperor wears no clothes. It takes guts for somene who works in the criminal justice system to speak up and say, putting this person in jail won't make us any safer. I'm glad this debate is starting to occur in Tarrant County, or rather, that it's starting to occur in public.

For more on the subject, see these related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

This all goes back to the basic problem: If someonme is harmless enough that they can be released from prison early, then arguably they shouldn't have been behind bars at all.

So, as Cicero was always pointing, out, "cui bono?". Who benefits from this? Obviously, as the anonymous judge points out, it would seem that shose who make the claim of 'public service' are actually lining their own pockets at the expense of the taxpayers, and as usual, the entire system suffers as a result.

Anonymous said...

Tarrant County has the most ridiculous booking system that any country could have.I was charged and accused of a crime, of course in this system you are alway guilty trying to prove your innocense. If not guilty when you go in, by the time you get through with their bond probation you will be guilty of something. Your bond probation will identify another flaw and now your not even in trouble for the origianl said crime any longer. Their not their to help but to try to cause you to mess up. Oh dont be 5 mins. late after going 3x a week having to take off work, park, pay for 3x a week testing or then you go to jail on a no bond. Then you cant get out or repay a bondsman or sit in jail 30 to 120 days till your name comes around. I wasnt even in trouble for any type of drugs ro alcohol. Now on bond you cant even have a beer or your put in jail. Funny I havnt even been to court yet and on probation. Not to say Has to pay a bondman $3500 for orginal arrest. Then they came back arrested for for 4 of the same charges. Then arrested in a differant county on the same charge. I dont even know anyone in the other county. That was another $3000 and the 4 charges of course the same bond was $12000. The charge was misuse of personal info. That was cause by a reported stolen computer. I wasnt even in town when happened. But you dont get back the $15000 in bonds or the $50 a month bond probation or the 3x a week urine testing or the parking. And they say get council. Tell me how? The normal everyday indidual could not afford to pay $15000 in bonds. I have never even went to court or charges filed yet and I recieved all this. How messed up is this system? You know the answer

Anonymous said...

Oh correct my last comment that is $18500 in bonds not $15000. for the anonymous said.....

Anonymous said...

I am one individual who should be an elected spokesperson on how the Tarrant County Criminal Justice System and how the bond program works. I think now when I look for employment I should list on my resume Tarrant Country Jail as my last two years employment. Charged with a Felony for taking a controlled substance from father who at the time had just had a quad bypass and myself calling the police,well that didnt due much i went to jail for having possession so put into the system of bond probation which is saying your guilty before even going to court. I paid monthly prob. fees and took UA's daily,then 3x wk,then court to get deferred to continue probation.Now one month before getting off probation I all of a suddent became the worst probationer and had all these violation I never knew about.Year and 1/2 into probation misunderstanding awaiting trial came up which associated $132,000 in bonds-5 at $25.000 and initial arrest at $7000.I didnt murder,hurt another,endanger community,not a drug crime,its a misunderstood work issue thats non violent.Now 1mo end of prob.I violated so recieved another $5000.Then again bond report and UA's 2x/wk.see bond off.and ua only 2nd day.1st report thurs next appt mon.Oh but since prior was short wk they came up w/that they said had to go fri since didnt get 2 in at start of prior week.Mon bond probation reported and told violated.Arrested back in jail-bond revoke. Now to get bond moved to $25,000. Now I have $157000 in bonds.You could murder someone and be out on less than this.All family live in Tarrant,born and raised here.Where am I going. I now report daily to UA to bond and told Friday I UA'ed at wrong location.What will bond be now.I have lost my job of 15yrs,can't go back to my career,have went into forclosure,Chapter13,my children are being put in counciling scared their parent will not come home,were straight A students now having problem and due to the stress my marriage of 16yrs went all the way to dirvorce court and we tore up papers in front of the judge.Not to mention an arrest during two yrs probation because bond officer thought my Dr. Medical narritive was not good enough for her.How much money can they just keep taking.Now I will be an indegent case.If I was such a threat to society why am I walking around with these type of bond fees.This is Crazy and out of control. The Felony would have been easier,but wanted my right to vote and was trying to help a family member. Concerned Tax Payer

Anonymous said...

I am sorry some of you had to spend thousands of dollars for your convictions on "small amounts" of deug charges. Does this teach you a lesson? I should hope so. Your small amounts of drugs can still cause impairment to which you may hurt or even kill other people or God forbid children in accidents. Maybe you will think about it next time you have the drugs on you or in your system and get behind the wheel. I am willing to pay to keep people locked up and off the streets for menial charges. I will pay all day long. As far as people who cannot make their cash bond for non payment of child support, they should stay in jail until they can pay back the money they righfully owe to their children. It seems that people who got to jail always have a gripe about this or that. How about YOU STAY OUT OF JAIL. Do the right thing, Follow. I find it hard to believe that it is the system's fault and not maybe your own.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"I find it hard to believe that it is the system's fault"

Then you're not paying attention. It's people in the system who say it's not working, including a detailed consultant's analysis of the process. The system is broken. Everyone who works in it realizes it. You may be willing to pay, but those running the system recognize that what you're paying for, especially locking folks up for "menial" charges, to use your term, doesn't actually contribute to public safety.

And no, it doesn't teach them a 'lesson' because a fine doesn't alter an addiction - drug treatment might, but unless SB 1909 and other pending Texas legislation passes in 2007, right now that option isn't widely enough available.

Stop focusing on what should be - right now, it isn't. Instead I find it more profitable to examine closely what the system is actually doing, and then see if and how it can be incrementally improved.

If the system is broken down, IMO it soon stops "sending the message" that you want tuff policies to deliver. best,

Anonymous said...

Yes, I am paying attention. I work in the system. I could show you analysis thats sways my way too. What i am saying is, everyone can find analysis to back up what they believe. I can give you testimonials of people that say it DID help them to realize that maybe they should change for the good.

Yes, I still believe people will learn a lesson. Why can't you spend time in jail for menial charges? Are you saying we should let people get probation for these menial charges time after time? Then when it comes to their 5th,6th,7th charge are they really getting the "help" they need? In your opinion drug treatment?

When you have a family member injured or killed by a person who has been through the system several times and got probation maybe your opinion will change.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Why can't you spend time in jail for menial charges?"

Because the jails are full, taxes are high, it costs $42 per day to incarcerate each new inmate, and government already can't afford their healthcare.

"Are you saying we should let people get probation for these menial charges time after time? Then when it comes to their 5th,6th,7th charge are they really getting the "help" they need?"

No, nobody is saying that. Only you and opponents of reform who like to throw out silly red herrings. Progressive sanctions use short-term incarceration and other non-prison sanctions to force compliance, and the raft of legislation currently moving in that regard creates new probation facilities and empowers judges and prosecutors to use these tools, if they're willing.

Sounds to me like you're too close to the problem. You want to hold every person caught up in the system responsible for whoever harmed you or your family member, or whomever happened to make you so angry. But don't let bitterness blind you to research-tested best practices that may lead to conclusions that aren't as motivated by vengeance and ill-will as the opinions you've expressed here.

Anonymous said...

I have not had one family member injured or harmed by anyone who may have gone to jail. i think this is what is wrong with this country in a whole. Letting people slide for some charges they obviously committed. I am not angry at all, I find it amusing you can draw these conclusions from these words.

I think that people are getting a swat on the hand. There are laws in place for a reason. People should follow the law, I do, and it is not hard.

It is really hard to believe how many time a person can get probation and continue to break the law. I do not think taht spending time in jail for a crime is a bad thing.

Let 3 days in jail help them see that maybe I shoudl conform, maybe I should make good decisions, maybe I should look out for my own self preservation instead of taking all for granted.

Putting people on probation is not a life altering event. Having them sit in jail for 2 days and having to wait on their breakfast, lunch and dinner, having to wait in line for the phone etc., can have a positive impact. Do you think people ususally work their way up the crime totem pole? I sure do. It always starts small and goes up levels as soon as they realize what they can get away with and what they can't.

Anonymous said...

I think 3 strikes and we KILL em ALL / screw the bail system / no bail for anyone. your a crook and you should be taken out

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You speak in cliches, the same ones that got us into this mess. And you act as if the broken system we have is the only system that could be.

Probation is a "life altering event." Many people choose incarceration rather than endure it. Stronger probation combined with progressive sanctions are designed to make it more of a life altering event and to create greater sanctions for non-compliance. But if you think probation isn't difficult now you're ignoring the data - many people cannot handle it and revoke on technicals only.

Finally, if you're not angry, then you're vindictive for no reason. Certainly your "I'll pay all day long" spiel sounds angry until one realizes you work in the system and you really mean paying your own salary. Then your position and comments make more sense, but it doesn't make them good public policy.

And as for Mr. Three Strikes then kill-em, good luck with that.

Anonymous said...

Good Luck Good Luck / OHHHH Buddy let me tell you, its comming the change is near / this world this country is in for some major changes / get on board or get ready to get ran over cause the NWO is comming Brother!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Ok you are right.

By the way if I was paying my own salary, I think I deserve a raise.

Anonymous said...

This is simply a way to force people to take pleas that they would not take. By leaving the Defendant in jail sooner or later they cave in. The Defense bar could easily participate in remedying the situation but as the appointment list is welfare for the local bar there is no incentive to do what one should do, advocate for your client, not let them rot in jail.

Anonymous said...

I just don't understand why some people even get into the field their in, we'll besides the money part! But I wonder when they stepped into that fist class on their way to becoming a judge, cop, bailiff, court reporter, probation officer, lawyer, or even a bail bondsman was it because they really wanted to help their community or was it because they liked having the authority to control others???