Sunday, September 10, 2017

A rare opportunity moment for bail reform

When Grits first began focusing on inequities in bail and pretrial detention back in the mid-aughts, insiders understood I was writing about real issues that needed addressing. But the response from the MSM and the public amounted to crickets chirping. Nobody outside of the insiders - who had to grapple with the daily reality of a failing system, even if the outside world hadn't noticed - seemed to care about locking defendants up for no other reason than that they were too poor to pay a private bail bondsman's fee.

Back then, when I'd try to get reporters interested in these topics, they'd inevitably tell me, "But the bondsmen do the job for free, they're the free market solution to pretrial release." I tried to point out that it's not free if their clients are housed in jail at taxpayer expense until they choose to use their services. Plus, most absconding defendants are recaptured by law enforcement (at traffic stops, etc.), not bail agents. On their face, the bail-does-it-for-free arguments never made any sense. They fall apart the moment you actually put numbers to any sort of cost model. But those simplistic arguments kept reporters from taking on these issues, and those of us criticizing money bail were portrayed as unrealistic and extremists.

Pero no mas. Today, there's more interest in reforming money bail systems in the United States (only us and the Philippines still engage in this outdated practice) than at any time in living memory. This morning, my browser tabs are full of bail-related news stories and media analyses, documenting reforms from red and blue states alike. As those of us in Texas await oral arguments at the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Harris County bail litigation (October 2nd), it's worth rounding up some of this coverage for context:

For an overview, check out this Washington Post editorial, "Fixing the unfair bail system is worth the costs." FWIW, the District of Columbia has already successfully gotten rid of money bail in most cases.

In New Mexico, voters approved bail reform but prosecutors are seeking to undermine it by overusing preventive detention mechanisms. So far, only 11 of 95 preventive detention requests have been approved, the rest denied, which is being taken as evidence that prosecutors are asking for detention in cases where defendants deserve release.

Here's a local story about bail-reform efforts in St. Joseph County, Indiana.

Wired magazine has a story about bail-reform efforts in New Jersey.

In California, promising bail reform efforts blew up and won't be revived again until 2018.

Because women are disproportionately impacted, some groups are seeking to put their stories at the center of the bail reform movement. A Mother's Day action this year in which advocates bailed out moms so they could be home with their kids continues to resonate with positive reactions.

For others, of course, it's an issue primarily for people of color.

However, conservatives also support bail reform because, jailing poor defendants is a "stale practice that isn’t adapting to modern realities" and "a costly burden for local governments."

At Fox and Hounds Daily, a retired 32-year Idaho sheriffs deputy makes the case that, "Bail reform restores basic American values of freedom and justice."

Finally, this strange column in the Houston Chronicle repeats the free-market-does-it-better trope and claimed that eliminating money bail for misdemeanors in Houston had "eliminated 80 percent of the private bail bonds business," quoting a local bail agent. Grits would have to see that figure documented independently to believe it - it sounds like overstated hype.

But there's no doubt reform has cut into the bail industry's business. Now it's time to finish the job. Any way you slice it, the bail industry's anachronistic economic interests damage the public weal. Their main counter-argument seems to be, "Corporate welfare made us rich, don't end it." But judging from the tenor of the national conversation going on right now, that sentiment doesn't seem as convincing to opinion leaders and the public as it did back when your correspondent began writing on the subject.

1 comment:

Jim Turner said...

Morning Grits. Most of the support for the so called free market bail bond system gets hung up in common fallacies. That which is seen vs. that which is not seen (a broken window fallacy) ignores those hidden costs such as the costs of housing prisoners, the losses to the economy and community because of lost jobs, social costs etc.. And in your urban areas, bail bonds are now just a specialized form of insurance, with large underwriters taking the risks and large bail companies just agents for this specialized, often unaffordable type of insurance.

I have worked in the bail bond industry from time to time and there is a place for it but not in it's present form. It's likely that true bail reform will put 80-90% of the bail bond companies out of business. Seems that's happened before with businesses like saddle makers and tack shops back as a result of the automobile. And you don't see many slide rules today in the age of digital.

Our present prison, bail, and criminal justice systems are the result of reforms that replaced even worse system. They were progress but not the end of progress and there is still more that can and should be done. Bail reform is just one of those areas but a too often ignored one.