Thursday, June 22, 2006

Campaign contributions from bail bondsmen goes to Tarrant County decisionmakers

Writer Dan McGraw from the Fort Worth Weekly emails:
You asked us to look at campiagn contributions in Tarrant County from bond agents, so we did. It is in this week's issue
Cool, now that's service! Thanks, Dan! McGraw refers to this Grits post back in December where I highlighted his story on Tarrant County's pretrial services system, Jailhouse Blues. McGraw quoted an anonymous judge declaring, "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.” Reacting to that I wrote:
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.
And lo and behold he did. (See: "Cell Blocked," June 21) You've gotta like that. What'd he find? Far and away the most contributions went to the District Clerk and the county commissioners court member who chairs the local bail bond board. Read the entire article, but here's a taste:
“Everything is political in this town, and you have to have some people on your side to make that work,” said bond agent David Gallagher. “There is nothing wrong with us contributing to political campaigns of politicians who have worked to make our criminal justice system work better. Attorneys make even more campaign donations, but nobody ever raises that issue. All we are trying to do is keep a system that has worked well for years, keeping people who don’t deserve it [from getting] the free bonds and free lawyers that the county has to pay for.”

What Gallagher is talking about is a county program called PreTrial Services that provides bonds for as little as $20 for most low-risk defendants accused of nonviolent crimes. The program is used extensively in other big-city Texas counties, but in Tarrant it’s been pretty much shunted to the side. The bond agents want to keep it that way, but pressure is increasing from judges and others to expand the program. And they’re looking to Johnson and Wilder in particular as their allies, on this and other developments they believe are putting the screws to their profits.
The article also contains some interesting comparative information about Tarrant and Travis counties' Pretrial Services programs that gives an idea of the range of difference between Texas counties in how defendants are processed.
[County Criminal Court Judge Daryl] Coffey, a proponent of pre-trial release, said there are some numbers that show how Tarrant County bond agents exert their political influence.

In looking at misdemeanor cases handled by his court thus far this year, Coffey determined that about 70 percent of defendants used private bonding agents, while about 10 percent used the Pretrial Services Program. The bonds set for the two groups were similar: Private bonds averaged about $1,000 per case, while the Pretrial Services’ were about $800.

The big difference showed up in how much it cost the defendants to get those bonds. Pretrial Services inmates paid 3 percent of the bond amount, or an average of $20. Those with private surety bonds paid 15 to 20 percent, or $150 to $200. “What ends up happening is that these accused [who get private bonds] spend too much time in jail trying to get money and then show up in court and say they can’t afford counsel,” Coffey said. “The show-up rate is the same whether it is private or Pretrial Services bonds. What happens is that our system puts money in the bond agents’ pockets, then the taxpayer pays for indigent defense. In so many cases, we could have that reversed.”

By comparison, Travis County, with about 15,000 criminal cases filed per year, uses the Pretrial Services Program for about 80 percent of its misdemeanor cases and about 20 percent of felony cases. Tarrant County doesn’t officially keep those numbers, but Tarrant County PreTrial Services director Michelle Brown said the agency handles about 250 cases per month, or only about 20 percent of the county’s caseload.

The difference is funding and, of course, the signs. Travis County’s PreTrial Services Program has 50 employees and an annual budget of $2.6 million per year. The Tarrant program has an annual $1 million budget and 16 employees. Brown expects the number of criminal clients to go up here once the signs are in place. “We don’t know what the impact might be, but I would expect we might not have the staff or the budget to handle it all,” Brown said.

Would an increase in budget for the Tarrant County PreTrial Services Program cost taxpayers money or save money? More than likely, it might save the county. Last week, Tarrant County jails held 1,951 unsentenced felony inmates, and 264 unsentenced misdemeanor inmates. If, as in Austin, about 80 percent of misdemeanor and 20 percent of felony defendants used PreTrial Services, that could mean 390 felony inmates and 210 misdemeanor inmates might be out of jail. At $50 dollars a day to pay for incarceration, that could work out to a savings of $30,000 per day or about $11 million a year.
That's a great explanation. Sometimes you gotta spend it to save it, as this example shows. Kudos to McGraw for following up on a blogger's suggestion with another important contribution to the local debate over bulging inmate populations at the Tarrant County Jail, how they got that way, and why.

See these prior related Grits posts:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There are several misconceptions in this article. First, in regard to overcrowding, the increased use of pre-trial services will only slightly improve this problem. The entire aim of pre-trial is releasing low-risk, non-violent offenders. Additionally, generally those eligible for pre-trial release are first time offenders, sometimes second time offenders. It is precisely these people that usually are able to post bond and be released anyway. Therefore pre-trial release will not alleviate overcrowding in this regard. The same people that find it difficult to obtain release via bail bond companies, will NOT be eligible for pre-trial release. The second poin of error is the mistaken belief tht the bail bond system costs defendants more money. Although the initial cost of release is less, the collateral costs usually make the cost equal in the long run. Usually as a condition od pre-trial release, defendants have to submit to monthly or weekly drug testing, as well as requiring visitaion with pre-trial serivces while the case is pending. The cost of these classes and tests, as well as the days missed form work ususally balance the costs out for the defendants. In the event you were actually able to produce an actual cost benefit to the defendant via pre-trial release, that simply means the cost will be bourne by society rather than the defendant. By using a private enterprise organization such as a bail bond company, all costs of regulating the defendants actions, keeping tabs on their whereabouts, making sure they respond to the charges in court, and locating and returning to custody any absconders is assumed by the bail bond comanies, NOT the county itself, which is already understaffed and overworked. It is silly to put the risk of bail jumpers on the county when you can get a GUARANTEED source of money in the event the defendant flees. In that event, the bail bond company will assume the loss at a SUBSTANTIAL economic benefit to the county. In addition, many counties have the practice of declaring defendants who simply arrive LATE to court as bond forfeitures thereby allowing them to obtain judgements against the bonding companies in amounts ranging from 150.00 to 300.00. This is also a significant source of income for theses counties. As a final observation, I believe the hypothesis that because a defendant pays 150.00 or 200.00 to a bail bond company they can no longer afford an attorney is sorely mistaken. Generally, lawyers for criminal cases charge at least 750.00 per case and up from there. Therefore in relation to the costs of an attorney, bail bond fees are insignificant. Thus the person who truly cannot afford an attorney will not miraculously be able to afford one because he saved a hundred bucks on a bond. Further, usually to receive a PR bond, you must show stability via employment, either for yourself or your family. Thus, these people whether released on surety bond or PR bond will be able to continue gainful employment and generate revenue thereby being ineligible for court appointed attorneys anyway. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your political ideology, almost all criminal defendants are entitled to attorneys, either retained or free if they are unable to afford one. Therefore, without a constitutional amendment, defendants are entitled to an attorney, and the miniscule costs of low risk, non-violent first time offenders does not affect this dynamic.