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.