Sunday, April 06, 2008

Trend toward bail, away from personal bonds a major factor in Harris County Jail overcrowding

It's not news that the Harris County jail is overcrowded, so I'm glad to see the Houston Chronicle devoting more attention to the question of "Why?"

The Chron today features a story by Mike Tolson about the trend toward requiring bail for low-level defendants, a topic on which Grits has focused extensively in the past. At a time when Harris County's jail has 1,000 inmates beyond capacity, and the county pays for another 600 to be housed in Louisiana, judges' decisions to allow fewer of these bonds directly contributes to non-compliance with state regulations and extra costs from leasing jail beds. Reports Tolson ("Use of no cash bonds drop," April 6):

Over the past 15 years, the use of personal bonds has all but disappeared in low-grade felony cases. Most Harris County district court judges say they would consider them for the right defendant, but the numbers suggest the "right" defendant rarely appears.

It has not always been this way. In 1994, personal bonds accounted for the release of almost 9,000 people from the Harris County Jail, including more than 1,800 facing low-grade felony charges, frequently drug possession.

A decade later, only 109 felony defendants were let out of jail without posting a cash bond. By 2007 that number was up slightly — to 153 — which translates into less than one half of one percent of the 36,176 people in jail interviewed by pretrial services officers.

Fewer personal bonds may be good for the bonding companies, as some people who once got them might be able to pay to get out of jail, especially if charged with a misdemeanor. But defense lawyers complain it is neither smart nor fair.

"What this means is that if you are really poor, you have zero chance of getting out of jail before your trial," said Pat McCann, president of the Harris Country Criminal Lawyers Association. "If you're a poor person in jail, you're screwed."

This is the biggest reason I was glad Harris County voters rejected a new jail last year. The county's jail overcrowding are largely volitional, mostly caused by misguided judicial choices, and perhaps the biggest single cause is the failure to issue personal bonds. Again from Tolson:

The consequences are two-fold. Fewer personal bonds contributes to the Harris County Jail being filled beyond capacity, requiring local taxpayers to spend $9 million a year to house approximately 600 prisoners in a private Louisiana jail. And people who cannot post a bond are far more likely to plead guilty in order to get out of jail.

"It's just plain nuts," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate's criminal justice committee and has talked with local judges and jail officials about the issue. "You've got to be smart as well as tough. If we better managed our current resources and only locked up those who posed a public safety risk, we would save millions of dollars."

I'm really glad the local paper has finally caught onto this story, which IMO lies at the core of the debate Harris and other counties with overcrowded jails should be having.

Virtually all jails with a significant overcrowding problem have a lot of inmates who, as Tolson put it, "stay in jail because they do not have the money to get out." Statewide, according to Dr. Tony Fabelo, overall jail population increased 18.6% between 2000-2007, while the number of pretrial detainees increased 49.2% over the same period. Harris County led the state's largest counties with the biggest increase both in raw numbers and by percentage.

Tolson's piece constitutes perhaps the most cogent discussion I've seen of this subject in the MSM, and the public would be well served by further discussion of who's in the Harris County jail who doesn't need to be there.

Kuff has more, and I've written about pretrial detention a lot in the past, including the problem specifically in Harris County, so rather than continue I'll refer readers to prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

There are a few states where bail bonds are illegal. The thinking is no one should profit from someone else's misfortune.

Refusing personal bonds is simply putting money in bondsmen's pockets after taking it out of the accused's pocket. That amounts to armed robbery.

Anonymous said...

Bail Bonds are set by Judges and they need to be held responsible for the overcrowding in Harris Co. Jail.

There are some good Judges and some very bad, angry Judges who think they sit on thrones in a lot of Texas cities. They need to learn, you are hurting your city, ruining a lot of families and causing hardships on children by you selfish way of jailing everyone who comes before you and then setting the bond so high no one without a huge inheritance can afford to pay this huge bond! You jail the bread winner of a family for something that should have never even been heard and you destroy families and ruin lives of children. Think about it, "What goes around, does come around."

Anonymous said...

When you have commercial bail bonds two people decide if the prisoner is to be promptly released (and one of them is a businessman). The judge sets the bond amount and the bail bondsman decides if the prisoner is a good risk.

If the person is a poor risk they have to borrow the extra money they need from relatives and friends. That can take several weeks and if they are not on good terms with their family and friends it might not happen.

Commercial bail bonding does not appear to be necessary because other countries and about four states manage without them. I am not aware of any advantages of having commercial bail bonds. What I object to is their lobbying the legislature to change the laws to increase their profits.

Anonymous said...

The advantage of commercial bail bonds is that someone else is extremely motivated to keep up with and produce the defendant in court.

It cost the state/county nothing. The bondsman must produce the defendant in court, or pay, or, if the defendant is caught elsewhere, pay for transporting back to the home county.

PR bonds are a joke. There is no recourse at all for bail jumpers.

Grits is dismissive of a judge who states that 70% don't show. That's because it doesn't fit his philosophy. If that judge is only half right, it still demonstrates that PR bonds are a joke and ineffective at assuring appearance at trial.

It's not about jail space, it's about appearance at trial.

Anonymous said...

I've seen people go to Harris Co. jail with thousands of dollars in there wallet and refuse to pay the Bond that was set. I,m one of them.

Anonymous said...

With all the bills coming due for the 20+ year long 'lock-'em-up!' phase of the DrugWar, it's becoming clearer all the time that it's a game we can't afford to play anymore. It's time to decide just what is worthy of incarceration and what isn't.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To 10:20 - I don't dismiss the judge's estimate because of ideology, but because of the record from counties with pretrial services divisions. For those I'm aware of (including Harris), the no-show rate runs in the single digits - mostly those likely to no-show don't qualify.

Also, you're simply wrong that requiring bail costs the county "nothing." It costs them about $45 per day for every extra day a person is in jail, and that's just counting direct costs.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Oh, and since you likely won't believe me because of my "philosophy," I'd encourage you to check out the consultant's report (doc) from Harris a couple of yeas back that told them the same thing, and gave data on no-shows and costs. Perhaps you'll question the authors' "philosophy," too, but they wrote:

"To the extent that defendants who pose no significant risk of nonappearance or of danger to public safety remain in pretrial detention because of inability to post bond, the County incurs significant and unnecessary costs for the operation of the jail. Such detention also appears to be contrary to Texas law requiring individualized consideration of the circumstances of each defendant in setting bail."

Anonymous said...

Yeah. In your face, 10:20.

Anonymous said...

Harris Co trivia:
A while back (10 years or so) the Harris Co Pre-Trial Agency used to give out $25 PTR bonds to 1st offenders however, all the bonding companies filed lawsuits or something like that and the practice was stopped.

The former head of Harris Co Probation was the last person to question the practice of un-equal bonds (ie: one person gets a low bond and another one with same charge gets no bond) on MRP's filed by Harris Co Judges. He was indicted for mis-use of a county computer.

There are over 30,000 open warrants in Harris County.

Anonymous said...

Overcrowding in the Harris County Jail and Texas Prisons; Non-Violent Drug Offenders Wasting Away in Prison and Costing Society Billions, Community Treatment Centers and PR Bonds Could Save You Money!Louisiana doesn’t mind. The state loves to incarcerate inmates. It has maintained the highest inmate incarceration rate in the world over the last decade – and it does it cheaply. Harris County will pay $38 a day to house each of its inmates at the West Carroll Detention Center. Martin pointed out that it would cost $45 to $55 per day to house these inmates in a comparable Texas facility.