Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Taxpayer-Funded Release Systems: what is their return on investment

Do you know if your taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely in the criminal justice system?  Do you know what your return on investment is? 

The debate continues as to whether taxpayer funding should be used to release and supervise defendants in the criminal justice system or if private industry can do the same more efficiently.  The crux of the issue?  Money should not be required to be released from jail.  The argument?  Money bail discriminates against the poor and promotes the release of the rich.  Money bail keeps defendants in jail thus increasing the cost to taxpayers.  Provide defendants with taxpayer-funded release based on a risk assessment score with oversight by government employees, and all will be fine.  Make defendants pay for their release, which will only profit the bail bondsman, with no effect on public safety.  Money bail only buys someone’s release from jail and profits private industry. 

Despite numerous academic studies and proof that commercial bail is the most efficient and effective means of pretrial release due to the layers of supervision and financial accountability, the push to use non-financial release in the criminal justice system continues.

The fact that defendants released on unsecured means (taxpayer funds) have higher recidivism and failure to appear rates should be ignored.  Or that the taxpayer is financially responsible for those failures to appear.  In essence, the taxpayer is paying law enforcement to arrest defendants, paying to house the defendant, paying jail staff to interview and assess defendants, paying to process the release of defendants and paying to supervise defendants.  At no point does the defendant assume any financial responsibility for their actions under unsecured release methods.

What about a collaborative system where government and private industry work together?  Very rarely happens – and it is not due to the bail industry. 

Accredited Surety and Casualty Company, Inc. is domiciled in Florida and located in Orange County, Florida, thus much of the review and analysis of taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs is focused in Florida and specifically in Orange County.

In Florida, the Legislature passed the Citizens’ Right-to-Know Act that delineates requirements for non-secured release into any pretrial services program, public or private, which conducts investigations of pretrial detainees, makes pretrial release recommendations to a court and electronically monitors and supervises pretrial defendants.

Non-secured release means the release of a defendant from pretrial custody when no secured surety or cash bond is required as a condition of the release.  The act also requires pretrial services programs to provide an annual report for the previous calendar year to the governing body and to the clerk of the circuit court in the county where the pretrial release program is located.  The annual report must be readily accessible to the public.

For example, the annual report provided by the Orange County, Florida jail’s pretrial services program attempts to justify the program based on the following legal authority:

Article 1, section 14 of the Florida Constitution provides that: “unless charged with a capital offense or an offense punishable by life imprisonment, every person charged with a crime or violation of municipal or county ordinance shall be entitled to pretrial release on reasonable conditions.”

Section 907.041(3), Florida Statutes, states that: “it is the intent of the Legislature to create a presumption in favor of release on non-monetary conditions.”

None of the two sections above provide any legal authority for the creation of a taxpayer-funded release and supervision program.  It simply provides that defendants are entitled to release on reasonable conditions and that the Florida Legislature favors release on non-monetary conditionsBoth of which can be ordered by a judge without the need for millions of taxpayer dollars to be allocated to create and fund a program to do the same.

Only 28 of 67 counties in Florida have determined that taxpayer funds should be used to establish a pretrial services program.  The rest of the counties manage their jail populations through public and private release mechanisms.  The Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability (OPPAGA) in Florida is charged with the annual review and adherence to statute for Florida’s pretrial services programs.  The last report available from OPPAGA (report 13-12, December 13) for the 2012 calendar year noted the following:
  • Only 11 out of 28 programs were able to provide a detailed breakdown of the nature of a defendant’s criminal history to the court;
  • Only 15 out of 28 programs charge fees to defendants to support program services;
  • Programs had varying numbers for failures to appear and arrests for new offenses, thus no consistency among programs;
  • Several programs did not provide criminal history data as required in the weekly registers; and
  • Only 11 out of 28 programs reported that in all cases it had certified to the court that it had obtained and verified required elements for non-monetary releases at first appearance hearings as required by statute.
Orange County, Florida
The Orange County jail houses a taxpayer-funded pretrial services program.  The program operates 24/7 and is comprised of two key functions:
  • Inmate identification, court information and release processing – funded at $1,466,024 for the 2013 fiscal year; and
  • Post-release supervision of non-secured releases (taxpayer-funded release) to include supervision of defendants on electronic monitoring – funded at $1,160,936 for the 2013 fiscal year
Orange County's home confinement program, which supervised defendants on electronic monitoring, was terminated in April 2013 in the wake of the alleged murder of Alex Zaldivar by a defendant who was supposed to be supervised by the program.  Internal reports found glaring errors in the routine monitoring of inmates in the home confinement program to include:
  • Improper compliance audits and compliance with program conditions;
  • Home confinement staff failed to address night time and weekend alerts in a timely manner or sometimes not at all;
  • Failed to conduct administrative hearings when excessive violations occurred; and
  • Staff were instructed to reduce revocations on supervised defendants to “keep their numbers up” in order to sustain the program. 
A review of data supplied in the 2013 annual report of Orange County’s pretrial services program revealed the following:
  • The supervision program operates Monday-Friday only and provides minimal supervision through telephone reporting and office contacts;
  • The supervision program was funded at $1,160,936 with the budget consistently increasing each fiscal year;
  • The inmate identification, court information and release processing was funded at $1,466,024; it should be noted that this funding also allows jail staff to release defendants on their own recognizance without ever seeing a judge over 340 defendants in 2013;
  • Only slightly over half of the defendants were required to post a cash or surety bond in addition to taxpayer-funded supervision;
  • 18.5 percent of defendants on taxpayer-funded supervision did not successfully complete the program;
  • While the supervision budget increased over the 2012 fiscal year, less money was collected in program fees from defendants (this could have been in part due to the termination of the home confinement program);
  • The taxpayer cost of supervision per person was $343; and
  • The return on investment for fees collected vs. supervision funds expended was 1.29 percent.
Need for collaboration
The bail industry has stressed the importance of private and government entities working more collaboratively together to monitor pretrial defendants when released on taxpayer funds and a bail bond.  This has specifically been discussed with the leadership at the Orange County jail by bail industry representatives.  When defendants are released on a bail bond and the court places them on taxpayer-funded supervision to monitor other conditions of release, both entities should work together for a successful conclusion to the case.  Both entities have a vested interest in making sure the defendant is adhering to conditions of release and the community is safe.  Particularly the bail agent as they are financially responsible for that defendant. 

To date, little collaboration is occurring in Orange County with the bail industry and criminal justice partners.  But the industry will remain willing participants if and when the overture is made.

Are there flaws on both sides of the fence?  Of course.  There are good and bad players and experiences in every industry unfortunately.  The commercial bail industry will continue to work with stakeholders to ensure laws and regulations governing the industry are adhered to.

The bail industry and taxpayer-funded release systems should work together to create more accountability on the part of offenders and increased public safety for victims and the community as a whole.  Such collaboration will only strengthen the criminal justice system in the end, which is what we should all strive for. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Domestic Violence Offenders in the Criminal Justice System

A 1992 murder of a domestic violence victim in Orange County changed the way judges considered bail for people charged with domestic violence.

Dusty Spencer was arrested for choking his wife Karen in December 1991.  He told her that if he got out, he would kill her.  And he did so very violently.

Mr. Spencer was held on a no-bond status after he called his wife from the jail and threatened to kill her.  His wife obtained a temporary restraining order the day after his arrest, which prevented him from returning to the home.  A few days after his arrest another judge set bond at $5,000, which Mr. Spencer paid through a bail bondsman and he was released.  On January 18, 1992 he went to his house, dragged his wife into the back yard, smashed her face with a brick, stabbed her and rammed her head into a concrete wall.  When deputies arrived she was already dead.

A January 8, 2001 article on the case in the Orlando Sentinel said that after Mrs. Spencer’s killing, judges refused to set bail in most domestic violence cases as perpetrators were regarded as potential murderers.  But an appeals court forced judges to consider bail in most cases. 

The Purpose of Bail

The main purpose of bail is to ensure the appearance of the defendant at all required court proceedings.  If the defendant fails to appear for court the bail agent is financially responsible to pay the court the bail amount in full. 

Whether the court orders a defendant released on a bail bond, taxpayer-funded release or release on own recognizance, there is no guarantee that a future crime will not be committed.  That is why it is so important for the judges and others involved in the criminal justice system to have a good assessment of a defendant to determine the risk to the community upon release. 

It is all of our responsibility to do our part to hold perpetrators accountable and victims safe.  That includes the jail staff that screens the defendant for first appearance, the judiciary, state attorney, public defender, the bail agent that takes the risk to post bail for a domestic violence offender or others who are charged with supervision of that offender.  None of us can sit back and not do our due diligence to make sure we are doing all we can to ensure a successful outcome of a case.

Financial Release

There has been much debate as to whether or not financial release punishes the poor and rewards the wealthy.  We have discussed those issues in previous blog postings.  However it is not hard to understand that when someone has personal financial resources, or a family or friend’s financial resources at stake, they may tend to take a situation more seriously and do what they should.  

Particularly in cases of domestic violence, all parties involved in a case should consider other conditions of release outside of just financial conditions, to again add a layer of accountability and community safety.  No one should simply allow a defendant charged with domestic violence to post a bond and then hope that all will turn out well – not the court, jail staff or the bail agent on the bond.

There are many scenarios where government and private industry work together for a common goal.  The criminal justice system should be no exception.  Operating in a silo gets little results while combining the expertise and resources of all enhances successful results.

Taxpayer-Funded Release

There has been a growing concern among domestic violence advocates that perpetrators charged with domestic violence are being released from jail on non-financial release with minimal supervision – calling into an automated telephone answering system or at most, a quick face-to-face meeting with a jail employee to “check-in.”  Or the domestic violence offense is plead down to a lesser offense. 
And we all know that house arrest or GPS monitoring is only good if someone is actually doing the monitoring.

Domestic violence is a prevalent crime and one that is often unpredictable.  People with no history of domestic violence and those who have long histories of domestic violence can escalate such violence to dangerous and lethal levels. 

Can financial release for domestic violence offenders increase safety for victims?  It is a debate that should be considered.  Offenders who must post significant financial resources or rely of a family member to do so for them, knowing the financial impact for not adhering to release conditions, have something at stake in their release.  That doesn’t mean that a bail agent securing the release of a domestic violence offender should just take the money and not take the individual’s offense seriously.  Domestic violence offenders should be held to a higher level of accountability while being given the tools and resources to help them change their controlling behaviors.  Others would argue that domestic violence offenders should be held without bond, which would then raise the issue of jail overcrowding and the impact on taxpayers.  There needs to be a better solution.

Orange County Releases

A recent sample of 14 weeks of releases into the Orange County, Florida jail’s taxpayer-funded pretrial services program, revealed that defendants charged with domestic violence, dating violence, battery, violation of domestic violence injunction, assault domestic violence and aggravated battery domestic violence are being released on non-monetary means.  Tax dollars are being spent to arrest, process, release and supervise these defendants.  If any of these defendants fail to appear for court, more tax dollars will be spent trying to find them.

From December 29, 2013 through April 5, 2014, 178 defendants charged with the above offenses were released on taxpayer funds – some charged with more than one offense and some with prior abuse offenses.  All but seven were declared indigent by the court, although 31 of those indigent defendants had lengthy criminal histories and had secured financial release several times for previous arrests.  Some defendants charged with these offenses had only traffic histories while others had no criminal history. 

For example:

  • Defendant A – released on non-monetary means on 1.5.14 charged with domestic violence and two contempt of court charges.  Defendant’s history includes 19 traffic offenses, four misdemeanors, 15 felonies and one prior domestic violence chargeDefendant was declared indigent but secured financial release four times.
  • Defendant B – released on non-monetary means on 1.24.14 charged with domestic violence.  Defendant’s history includes 8 traffic offenses, 7 no degree offenses, ten misdemeanors and ten feloniesDefendant was declared indigent but secured financial release eight times.
  • Defendant C – released on non-monetary means on 2.2.14 charged with domestic violence and criminal mischief.  Defendant’s history includes 2 traffic offenses, 1 no degree offense, 21 misdemeanors, 11 felonies, two prior domestic violence charges and one assault charge on law enforcementDefendant was declared indigent but secured financial release 16 times.
  • Defendant D – released on non-monetary means on 2.9.14 charged with dating violence.  Defendant’s history includes 1 traffic offense, six misdemeanors and three feloniesDefendant was declared indigent but secured financial release seven times.
  • Defendant E – released on non-monetary means on 2.9.14 charged with domestic violence.  Defendant’s history includes 3 traffic offenses, 13 misdemeanors and nine feloniesDefendant was declared indigent but secured financial release five times.
Across the country, defendants are being released into these taxpayer-funded programs for a variety of offenses, both misdemeanor and felony.  However given the volatile and unpredictable nature of domestic violence, increased collaboration between the public and private sectors in the criminal justice system should occur to hold perpetrators more accountable for their behavior and encourage survivors to seek help and assistance.

Domestic violence can happen to anyone.  It costs all of us.

To learn more read Harbor House of Central Florida's 2012-2013 Impact Report.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Is Money Really Weighing Down the Scales of Justice in the Criminal Justice System?

We have all heard the arguments, the scare tactics, the innuendos, the blatant falsehoods and skewed statistics: how money bail is the only thing keeping those arrested for a crime, for the most part, from being released so they can return to their families and communities to be productive citizens pending the disposition of their case.

How poor defendants charged with low-level crimes can spend days, months or even a year sitting in jail waiting for a trial that often ends in an acquittal, while defendants with access to money and who are charged with a major crime can be set free “immediately to kill again,” as a recent New Jersey editorial stated. 

Other notable quotes regarding the bail industry include:
"Community safety is not anywhere in the realm of pretrial release and when you look at who can get out it’s the drug dealer who has his pals in the back with a wad of money and the indigent is going to be staying in no matter the outcome."
"One night or day in jail can really impact an individual; when arrested we are impacting their family, their work, their whole life. Many people going through the system don’t have smart phones for reminders, so other little things to get them to court are important instead of paying money they don’t have. If they pay a bond, now they can’t pay their rent or buy food." 
"You pay a bail bondsman ten percent and then you get arrested again and the bail goes up even more and you pay the bail agent more money for the next time you get bailed out. It is very illogical and begs the question why are we doing this; people just think that is how it’s done." 
"The ravages of what we call bail in America; a ridiculous game that disadvantages those who are the least equipped and resourced to defend themselves." 
"For better or for profit: how the bail bonding industry stands in the way of fair and effective pretrial release." 
"Bail fail: why the U.S. should end the practice of using money for bail."
For added benefit, the threat of jail overcrowding and how much taxpayers will have to pay for extra jail beds adds fuel to the flame.   Poor and low-income defendants remain in jail for months costing taxpayers thousands of dollars per inmate because they can’t even raise small bail amounts.  Thus encouraging the expansion or creation of taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs – also funded with taxpayer dollars – to facilitate the release of defendants on the taxpayer’s dime with government staff doing the supervision. 

What is not really talked about is the real cost of housing an inmate.  In reality, the real cost of housing an inmate per day is typically under $20 for the cost of consumables – clothing, toiletries and food.  Not the fixed costs that remain to run a jail unless major sections of the jail are closed.

Let’s be clear about a few things.
  • Jurisdictions have relied on commercial bail since the founding of the United States. 
  • The commercial bail industry saves taxpayer’s millions of dollars annually by helping to lower jail populations and is user-funded, not taxpayer-funded.
  • The commercial bail industry offers many layers of financial commitments from the insurance company as surety on the bond, a bail agent’s own financial resources and third-party indemnitors who may bear a financial burden for a defendant’s failure to appear.
  • The commercial bail industry does not set bail amounts or have any say regarding bail schedules.  That is the purview of the courts and Judges.  
  • Bail agents work with people from all socio-economic strata’s – the poor, low-income, average-income, high-income and the wealthy.
  • Bond fees and rates are not determined by race, gender or socio-economic status but by strict bail schedules.
  • Bail agents charge a minimum fee to assume the risk of appearance for a defendant and are financially responsible for defendants until disposition of their case.
  • Commercial bail has the lowest failure to appear and recidivism rates of all forms of pretrial release.
  • Public safety is enhanced under commercial bail as bail agents continually assess the risk of a defendant to ensure a positive outcome.
  • Defendants remain in jail for numerous reasons and not just because they can’t afford a bail bond: immigration holds, probation violations, failure to appear, seriousness of the charge, a flight risk, awaiting transfer to a state prison or serving a sentence in the county jail.
The commercial bail industry agrees with the following:
  • Bail should not be a punishment, but a tool for ensuring a defendant appears at trial to ensure the integrity of the judicial system.
  • Judges should make a release decision based on the nature of the crime, a defendant’s flight risk and risk to public safety.
  • Judges should have the authority to deny bail to defendants accused of committing first-degree crimes, such as murder, carjacking, kidnapping and sexual assault, or other serious offenses that would cause the defendant to pose a risk to the community if released.
  • The goal should be to incarcerate people who need to be incarcerated based on their alleged crime and criminal history and find feasible and working solutions for releasing others.
  • Facilitating the pretrial release of defendants who pose little risk to the community would help alleviate crowded jail conditions and save taxpayers the costs of unnecessary incarceration.
  • A "risk tool" or "risk assessment," which is based on a defendant’s criminal history, the severity of the current allegation, failures to appear, violations of probation and other factors, can be a valuable tool in helping Judges determine the appropriate release method.
However, taking away the “human element” in determining a release method or decision is tricky.  Some proponents of eliminating all financial release believe that even a computerized tool can be used to assess defendants to determine if they can be released immediately after their arrest – either on their own recognizance or under taxpayer-funded supervision.  The release of course is "free" but perhaps not the supervision.  Nor perhaps is the required drug and alcohol screenings, anger management classes, drug treatment or other monitoring methods.  But – the release is free and the defendant is not taking up space in a jail bed.  And they may not even be indigent and can afford their own release and perhaps have even done so in the past.  Their crimes may not be “dangerous” as defined by a state statute but can still be very serious in nature or a repeat offense. 

But the defendant is not paying a bail agent for their release so that makes it all okay.

Many taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs accept defendants charged with a wide range of criminal offenses, including violent and career felons, many of whom can afford their own release.  And the level of supervision and interaction with that defendant can be very different from what a bail agent requires. 

So what is the solution?

Eliminating a private industry that has a proven track record of success and effectiveness in making sure defendants appear for court and that has been around for centuries, and replacing it with a wholesale bureaucratic release and supervision system funded by taxpayers, is not the answer. 

Can release mechanisms and processes be improved regarding which defendants are released and how pending disposition of their case?  Of course. 

Judges have the authority to release anyone on their own recognizance and often do so.  Such authority allows for low-income or poor defendants who have committed a minor crime to be released in a timely manner without an unnecessary financial burden. 

But do the taxpayers want defendants charged with domestic violence, dating violence, failures to appear, violations of probation, carrying/possessing concealed weapons, burglary, robbery and fleeing/eluding law enforcement to get a free "get out of jail” card?

Where do we stop the free release for repeat offenders of DUI, driving with license suspended/revoked, property crimes, drug crimes and grand theft/petit theft?

Because taxpayers are paying for those releases everyday across the country where taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs operate.

Defendants should hold some accountability for their release when arrested for an alleged crime.  Whether that means they must secure financial release under the supervision of a private bail agent or warrant taxpayer-funded release with conditions, both release systems should work together to ensure the criminal justice system is working effectively. 

Those defendants who are charged with a first-time, non-violent offense can be eligible for taxpayer-funded release or release on their own recognizance.  

But when the crimes increase in severity or frequency, financial release with conditions should be imposed.  Bail agents live and work in their communities and want their family and friends to live in a safe environment.  

The commercial bail industry gladly welcomes the opportunity to have a strong working relationship with the courts and taxpayer-funded pretrial services systems to make sure defendants are being released appropriately and supervised adequately.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Wisest Use of Your Tax Dollars

There is an increasing push to establish taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs across the country and to eliminate financially secured bail.  Why?   Advocates of using more of your tax dollars to perform a function that the private industry is extremely effective at, cite various reasons.  One is jail overcrowding because people can’t afford financial release.  Another is that financial release discriminates against the poor.  Yet another is that financial release is not evidence-based or objective.  Another is that financial release doesn’t look at risk for flight or risk to public safety.  Another is that financial release elevates the economic status of the defendant over assessment of risk
In other words, is a system that has operated successfully and efficiently for centuries, ensuring that defendants appear for all required court appearances using no taxpayer dollars, no longer valid or needed?  Are taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs the panacea to all of the woes in the criminal justice system?

By their own definition, advocates for such programs state that: pretrial services programs are an alternative to incarceration and provide all criminal court defendants that are initially unable to post bail, the opportunity to be interviewed to determine eligibility for release from jail under a supervised program.   How is it determined that such defendants are unable to post bail?  There are many defendants who have been and are able to post bail for prior and current criminal arrests but instead are given free release by the taxpayers.  Many defendants have been released on taxpayer funds when they are not even declared indigent by the court.

They go on to say: Pretrial services release is mainly for defendants accused of minor crimes who can demonstrate that they live in the community and pose no threat of flight or danger to the community at large.

There are literally thousands of examples of defendants released on taxpayer funds to be “supervised” in the community and who are charged with serious and violent offenses, many with lengthy criminal histories, violation of probation and failures to appear for court.  The contention that only defendants charged with minor crimes are released on taxpayer funds is a ruse to get more funding for their programs.

Those who promote the elimination of financially secured bail continue to try and make the taxpayers believe that our pretrial justice system is broken because defendants must either pay bail or wait behind bars for their court date.  Proponents of taxpayer-funded programs claim they save the taxpayers millions of dollars by securing the release of defendants who otherwise would languish in jail without them.  Money is the sole reason that is causing the unnecessary incarceration of the defendant.  Money is stopping them from returning to their family and jobs.  Money is causing jail overcrowding across the country because defendants can’t afford their release.

So the alternative is to release individuals on taxpayer funds through pretrial services programs, comprised of employees that often have little or no experience in supervising defendants.  And yet they are tasked with ensuring defendants are complying with the conditions of bond and keeping citizens safe. 

In contrast, public safety is enhanced under financially secured bail as bail agents continually assess risk of the defendant to include regular check-ins, ongoing communication with the defendant and indemnitors, court reminders and monitoring to avoid a failure to appear.  Why?  Because bail agents are physically and financially responsible for defendants released on bail.  If that defendant fails to appear for court, the bail agent must repay the full amount of the bond to the court. 

When people are arrested, they have several options for release, with financial bail being one of them.  Taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs play an important role in the criminal justice system, which is interviewing defendants prior to their initial court appearance and compiling criminal history information for the judge to make an informed release decision.  Such programs were never designed to supervise the types of defendants or the number of defendants they are today.

The private commercial bail industry understands that many counties are still facing difficult financial times and that they are seeking ways to be as innovative as possible.  Likewise so is the commercial bail industry.  All of us must do more with less.  All the more reason to focus our resources and expertise in areas of the criminal justice system that save taxpayer dollars and protects public safety.

Taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs should focus on the non-violent, first-time offenders who pose little threat to community safety or those defendants who are truly indigent and have been arrested for a minor crime.  The commercial bail industry has years of experience in supervising the more violent offenders and those with lengthy criminal histories.  And, we use our own resources to do so.

As the commercial bail industry has said before and will continue to say . . . imagine the effect on public safety and offender accountability if both systems worked together to ensure the defendant appeared at all required court hearings, refrained from future criminal activity and refrained from violating any other condition of release?

The commercial bail industry is a willing partner but is the taxpayer-funded pretrial services system?  We welcome the opportunity to come to the table as friends instead of foes.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Make a Shift and Get a Different Outcome

Fresh starts and fresh views often come with a new year.  Here are some ideas for 2014:
  • Exceed expectations.  All of us can exceed expectations for the better good; simply meeting expectations often gets us nowhere.  With teamwork and cooperation, there are unlimited possibilities.  Particularly in the criminal justice system.  The private commercial bail industry and taxpayer-funded pretrial services systems should work hand-in-hand to enhance public safety and offender accountability.
  • Show your passion for what you do.  Without passion, a job is simply something to do.  Without passion, a job is just a job.   With passion, you know you are making a difference in the world.  The private commercial bail industry is passionate about the services it provides in the criminal justice system; we provide valuable guidance and assistance to clients and their family at a critical time and save taxpayers millions of dollars each year.
  • Don’t operate in a silo.  Working in isolation vs. collaboratively stunts the achieved outcome.  The private commercial bail industry and taxpayer-funded pretrial services systems can achieve so much more through collaboration and partnerships, leading to increased effectiveness and successful outcomes. 
  • Take personal accountability.  Make a choice to be personally accountable and to make a difference in all that you do.  The private commercial bail industry and taxpayer-funded pretrial services systems have a unique opportunity to help others take personal accountability for their actions at a critical moment in their life.  Bail agents can share their wisdom and experience in the criminal justice system by connecting with defendants and their families and perhaps help to stop or break the cycle of crime.  Employees of taxpayer-funded pretrial services systems can help defendants and their families secure the help and resources they need – perhaps for the first time – and get back on the right path.  Let your clients know you care and want to help them.
  • Seek out opportunities to share what you do.  Don’t let an opportunity cease to be one.  Be proud of the services and work that you provide and let others know about it.  Both the private commercial bail industry and taxpayer-funded pretrial services systems offer valuable avenues to help people get released from jail pending disposition of their case.  Bail agents guarantee court appearance and save taxpayers millions of dollars in the process.  Taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs help defendants who are poor or indigent or who need additional services to be released from jail.  Take the opportunity to educate others about the significant role you play in the criminal justice system. 
  • Think teamwork instead of me, me, me.  Build a rapport with your colleagues and partners to share your knowledge and experience to grow your profession instead of focusing on how to compete with others.  Competition can be good to a point – but working as a team often accomplishes so much more.  Teamwork is an opportunity to grow, discover areas of strength and areas of opportunity.
  • Change the paradigm.  A paradigm is a theory or a group of ideas about how something should be done, made, or thought about.  A paradigm shift is taking place in the criminal justice system.  Both the private commercial bail industry and taxpayer-funded pretrial services systems need to proactively be involved in that paradigm shift and find ways of strengthening our roles while working together to enhance public safety.
  • Think outside the box.  Thinking outside the box is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective.  In the criminal justice system, thinking outside the box means finding new ways to work with our partners, collaborating in ways we haven’t before, seeing things in a new light.  The end result will be safer communities and less crime.
  • Re-motivate yourself.  Be an ambassador for the work that you do and the way that you do it.  Bail agents work 24/7 and sacrifice so much of their time with family and friends to help defendants and their families in a time of need.  It is a demanding and often dangerous profession.  Re-motivate yourself by embracing the important role you play in the criminal justice system and the guidance you provide to your clients and their families navigating a complicated system. 
  • Accept change.  Change is inevitable.  Change can be positive.  Accepting new ideas, new ways of doing things and new challenges can reinvigorate us and the work that we do.  Charles Darwin, best known for his contributions to evolutionary theory, said about change: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives.  It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
  • Lead by example.  Albert Einstein said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.”  If you want others to believe in you and the work that you do, show them by your actions and not just your words.  Be responsible.  Be professional.  Be understanding of others.  Be willing to compromise for the greater good.  Be passionate about your work.  Be an example of what others strive to be.

    "Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible and suddenly you are doing the impossible."
                                                  St. Francis of Assisi 

    Welcome to 2014!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Public Safety: we are all responsible

As the end of 2013 approaches and the beginning of 2014 arrives, the debate on how best to enhance and protect public safety will, and should, continue.  What should not continue are the negative attacks focused on what mechanism should be used to release arrested individuals from jail.  Instead, we should work together and do what each system does best to make our communities safer for all of us.

Let’s face it.  In every walk of life and profession, there are bad influences and corruption despite all efforts to prevent it: politicians, law enforcement, clergy, government, criminal justice, banking, education etc.  Do we paint this negative brush from a few on all the rest?  Why focus on the bad deeds of the few without looking at the honorable and good deeds of thousands?

Individuals in the commercial bail industry, for the most part, are honorable men and women who run small businesses, who are passionate about the service they provide in the criminal justice system and are proud to save taxpayers millions of dollars.  Individuals employed by taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs are proud to provide the court with validated and informed risk assessments to make safe, fair and effective pretrial release decisions.  Both systems offer the criminal justice system tools to hold offenders accountable to the court.

Yet, the debate rages on about the, “ravages of what we call bail in America,” by proponents of taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs claiming that financial release disadvantages the poor.  The commercial bail industry stresses that it costs taxpayers nothing while assuming the financial risk for the defendant and in fact, adds money back to county coffers through the payment of premium taxes for every bond written.

Yes, the commercial bail industry provides a service in return for a non-refundable fee.  Just like non-refundable rental deposit fees, real estate fees, insurance fees, educational/tuition fees, airline fees, pet deposit fees, broker fees, ticket/event fees, professional service fees, travel fees, early termination fees and banking fees, as examples, the non-refundable fee to a bail agent is the cost of doing business and assuming the risk of appearance for the defendant.  This non-refundable fee is not a “fine” or something to be charged as punishment.  So why, when so many other industries also charge and collect non-refundable fees, is the bail industry brushed as, “taking profits by making it more expensive for people of lesser means to move through the criminal justice system?

Bail agents don’t set bail amounts.  And while some manipulate the system by charging less than the mandated premium, most veteran bail agents work with legislators and departments of insurance to regulate the industry to prevent such abuses.  Illegal and unethical tactics can destroy and cast a negative eye on an honorable industry.

The purpose of bail is to guarantee the appearance of a defendant at court and no other form of pretrial release is more effective at doing so than the commercial bail industry.  The industry agrees that the threat to public safety and flight risk are important considerations when setting bail.  We also agree that taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs that conduct a validated risk assessment on defendants for the court to determine a release mechanism, is also an important tool.  Any release mechanism should be tied to risk.  Judges have the authority to release any defendant on their own recognizance at any time.  Poor, non-violent and low-risk defendants should not “languish” in jail if they cannot afford financial release because the judge already has the authority to release them.  The commercial bail industry is not the culprit or the one keeping such defendants in jail. 

Proponents of taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs advocate for the elimination of financial release and of the end of the commercial bail industry.  What do they want instead?  Timothy Murray, chair of the Pretrial Justice Institute, said if a defendant is not a threat to public safety or a serious flight risk, they should be released and expected to return for their court date on their own, with the aid of a pretrial monitoring system.  So in essence, this means eliminating a private industry that uses no taxpayer dollars to ensure the appearance of a defendant in court and replacing it or expanding pretrial services programs using taxpayer dollars.  The government then becomes a bail agent releasing and supervising defendants instead of private industry.  The claim is that in the end, such a system will save taxpayers money by freeing up jail beds – but in reality such taxpayer “savings” are just being used elsewhere within government.  And if the defendant misses court more of your tax dollars will be spent to locate and re-arrest them.

The bail industry offers another scenario.

Just imagine the effect on public safety and offender accountability if both systems worked together to ensure the defendant appeared at all required court hearings, refrained from future criminal activity and refrained from violating any other condition of release.   

Defendants who warranted financial bail based on their offense or a judge’s order but ones that a judge determined would benefit from additional layers of supervision, could be released under both systems: 
  • The taxpayer-funded pretrial services program would enforce conditions of release such as drug or alcohol testing, face-to-face or telephone supervision or other conditions of release;
  • The bail agent would be responsible for ensuring appearance at all required court hearings;
  • Any concerns regarding violation of conditions of release or a possible failure to appear could be addressed collaboratively between the two systems;
  • Ongoing and effective communication would occur between both systems supervising a defendant;
  • Defendants would know that both the taxpayer-funded pretrial services program and their bail agent were working together to ensure system accountability and public safety.
A win-win situation with both systems together providing the tools and expertise they have instead of singularly.  No fighting, no blaming, no one-upmanship – just helping to make the criminal justice system stronger. 

The other aspects of the system should work effectively as well:
  • Defendants whose offense(s) warranted financial bail and that could afford their own release either with a cash bond or surety bond with supervision from a bail agent would pay for it and be released;
  • Defendants whose offense(s) warranted financial bail and that could afford their own release but needed additional layers of supervision, could be released on a bail bond and also supervised through a taxpayer-funded pretrial services program;
  • Defendants who were indigent or poor and based on their offense, criminal history and risk assessment were eligible for release and supervision under a taxpayer-funded pretrial services program, could be released; 
  • Defendants who were eligible to be released on their own recognizance or a promise to appear for court based on their offense and criminal history could be released;
  • Defendants who could not afford financial release but whose offense was serious and/or violent and/or had lengthy criminal histories would remain in jail until the court decided the appropriate mechanism for release, if at all.
Both the poor and rich would have fair and consistent release mechanisms. 
We hope that in 2014 across this great country of ours that such magical and possible scenarios can be attained.  The commercial bail industry is ready and willing to be partners in such an endeavor. 

Wishing all a wonderful holiday season and the very best in 2014.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thanksgiving Season

Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday celebrated primarily in the United States and Canada as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year.  When we are thankful for something, it means we are grateful and appreciative.

While there are many things to be thankful for, this season we give thanks to the many men, women and families who work 24/7 to support their families while assisting loved ones and friends of others.  Small business owners who contribute to our economy and save taxpayers millions of dollars annually.  Individuals who often don’t receive the respect and thanks they deserve for an often risky profession.

The men, women and families employed in the commercial bail industry.

The commercial bail industry employs thousands of bail agents and support personnel across the country.  The industry provides significant savings to taxpayers by making sure defendants appear for court.  The system is user-funded and doesn’t rely on limited taxpayer dollars that could be better used in the criminal justice system.  The commercial bail industry reduces jail populations, saving taxpayers millions of dollars in jail beds, and has been proven by numerous studies to have the lowest failure to appear and recidivism rates.

The commercial bail industry is a vital component in the criminal justice system.  Yet there are opponents that continue to promote a negative connotation of the industry through falsehoods and scare tactics.

They blame the industry for the “skyrocketing cost of bail” when in reality, the industry has no role in setting bail amounts; the court does.  They blame the industry for “profiting off mass incarceration” when in reality, the role of the bail agent is to secure the release of defendants from jail.  They blame the industry for our “devastating effect lobbying has on prisoners and their families” when in reality, the industry fights for legislation that improves appearance and increases public safety.  Most legislation increases the regulation and accountability of the bail industry, not lessens it.

Bail is an insurance product; a contract between the court, defendant and a surety.  It is not a “loan from a bondsman with a catch;” much like any other insurance product, the small non-refundable fee paid to secure the release of a defendant from jail must cover all expenses, insurance costs and fugitive recovery fees if necessary.

So let’s talk about what release system opponents of commercial bail want instead.

Pretrial Services programs are taxpayer-funded; some use a risk assessment tool to determine the risk level of a defendant.  Many times the defendant is never interviewed but just assessed on paper.  Proponents of this system believe that financial release should be abolished and that defendants should be released via taxpayer funds or on their own recognizance.

Originally designed to assist the release of non-violent, indigent defendants who could not afford financial release, today it doesn’t matter if you can afford your own release from jail.  A risk assessment will determine your risk level and type of supervision, if any; no financial accountability on the part of the defendant is needed.

The commercial bail industry has vocally and repeatedly stated that there is a place for taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs in the criminal justice system; however they should focus on indigent individuals who are arrested for a non-violent offense and who are not career criminals.  Both systems should work together to enhance public safety.

Proponents of taxpayer-funded release systems want the public to believe that only poor/indigent people who have committed a minor offense are released into such programs.  This is true for some defendants but is not necessarily the norm. 

Defendants are charged with and released into taxpayer-funded release programs for a wide gamete of crimes : battery, battery domestic violence, battery dating violence, resisting law enforcement with and without violence, drug offenses, grand theft, petit theft, driving offenses etc. - both for misdemeanor and felony offenses and many with lengthy criminal histories. 

Many of the crimes are considered “victimless crimes” or “non-violent crimes,” while others are not.  The question to ask is how taxpayers want millions of their dollars to be used?  Is it to secure the release of first-time, non-violent offenders or those that continue to commit crimes and/or those that commit a crime against others?  Do taxpayers want their limited dollars used to minimally supervise such defendants or do they wish to rely on an industry that has a long history and partnership in the criminal justice system and one that uses their own resources to hold defendants accountable?

The wisest decision would be to let each system do what it does best.  The commercial bail industry knows how to supervise defendants and make sure they return for court; if they don’t, it is not the taxpayer who pays but the bail agent.  Taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs are good at making sure indigent defendants gain access to programs and services they need, defendants with mental health or substance abuse issues get the resources to help them and that offenders who have committed a minor, first-time offense get back on track. 

The elimination of financially-secured release and of a large and effective industry is not the answer.  Using our resources appropriately is.

So this Thanksgiving holiday, let us be grateful and appreciative for the role that we all can play in making our communities safer.  

Wishing all a happy holiday season.