Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bail, Insurance Companies, Politicians, and Greed

In the story, "Bail Bond Bill Will Create Debtor’s Prisons,” by Bruce Murphy, he asks, “Why are Republicans pushing a bill opposed almost unanimously by criminal justice professionals?”

Why, indeed? But Wisconsin is not alone. Across America, big insurance company lobbyists are pushing bills designed to increase their profit – criminal justice be damned – by backing bills to insert for-profit bail into the system, or to limit judges in using methods of release that don’t involve sending business the insurance companies' way. In a quote from District Attorney John Chisholm in the article, “The return of commercial bail bonds, will primarily benefit out-of-state interests, the large bail-bond corporations” motivated “purely by financial interests” at the expense of public safety. 

Oh good. Let’s pass it.

But it’s worse than that. I believe that the bail insurance companies want back into Wisconsin just so they can say that it represents a “national trend” toward using for-profit bail. In fact, I was recently at a Senate hearing in another state where the bail lobbyists said that very thing. Never mind that virtually no one in criminal justice, from police to judges, feels that for-profit bail has any meaningful value. Never mind that the bail industry tried to get into Wisconsin before, and failed. Wisconsin is just being used to further the interests of the big bail insurance companies. They have the money, and thus they have access to politicians who, strangely, will pass criminal justice laws that the whole criminal justice system opposes.  

There was a guy at the Senate hearing who said that he teaches on “best practices” at bail. Unfortunately, he is paid quite well to say that for-profit bail is a best practice. He is wrong, of course, and hopefully Wisconsin will rally together to keep this corporate interest out of criminal justice. Believe me, once they are in Wisconsin, the state will see a barrage of new laws each year designed to continue increasing the bail industry profits. It will see a new regulatory bureaucracy necessary to watch over the “problem child” of regulated occupations. Finally, and most unfortunately, it will see unnecessary pretrial detention of those who simply cannot afford to pay the bondsmen’s fee.

Scholars have openly condemned the for-profit bail industry practically since its inception. Wisconsin should be proud to know that it was famously enlightened when it abolished the practice in the 70’s.

Read the story. It shows how ALEC, the various bail insurance companies, and a few lobbyists are using Wisconsin as a pawn in their American bail strategy – just so they can make a buck.   

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Low" Money Bonds and Unnecessary Pretrial Incarceration

Here is part of a jail study recently done by my friend, Marie VanNostrand of Luminosity, for New Jersey:

As stated previously, nearly three-fourths of the jail popu­lation had a primary custody status of pretrial (Superior and Municipal Courts). A closer examination of those in­mates reveals that just over 5,000 inmates, or 38.5% of the total population, had an option to post bail but were held in custody solely due to their inability to meet the terms of bail. This means that the inmates were not serving a sentence, had no holds or detainers, and could have been released if they were able to post bail in the form of cash, cash/bond, 10% option or support arrears. Table 11 contains the bail amount ranges by bail post op­tion for inmates who were held on bail only. When con­sidering the 10% Deposit Option and the Cash or Bond Option, which allows for payment of approximately 10% to a private surety, there were approximately 800 inma­tes held in custody who could have secured their release for $500 or less. Considering the same circumstances, an additional 259 inmates could have secured their release for between $501 and $1,000 and an additional 489 inma­tes could have secured their release for between $1,001 and $2500. When these groups are combined, there were 1,547 inmates (12% of the entire population) who were held in custody due to an inability to pay $2500 or less.

Prior to studies like this we would say, using logic, that there were people in jail who couldn’t get out because they couldn’t raise the money. If you can imagine, there were people – like bail industry lobbyists and certain uninformed criminal justice types – who simply didn’t believe it. When pressed, they sometimes even said that if there were such defendants, most of them were probably choosing to stay in jail for some reason or other.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, we set out to test that assumption by going cell to cell and asking defendants who had not posted bail why they had not posted bail. We asked everyone, and then we separated out the ones with holds, those serving sentences, etc. Like New Jersey, we found that 60% of those defendants who had not been released on bail within 48 hours were still in custody because they couldn’t post the amount. And yes, we did find some that some didn’t want to post it for one reason or another (like hoping to get time-served), but only about 7%  (who weren’t counted in the 60%, by the way). Then we did another study later on where we found, like they found in New Jersey, that about 100 “minimum security” inmates in the Jefferson County Jail had bail amounts of $500 or less, and another 100 had bond amounts between $500 and $1,000. The bottom line is that if they were to look into it, virtually all jails situated in jurisdictions wedded to a money bail system will find some percentage of defendants incarcerated unnecessarily. And if they were to look into the amounts keeping these defendants in jail, I think they would be surprised at how low those amounts may seem to be – especially to people, like judges and attorneys, who probably think that $500 is no big thing.       

But my point is this. In bail, there are certain basic assumptions that we would like to be able to make concerning defendant behavior, such as the fact that most defendants would rather not stay in jail versus being free before their trials. Unfortunately, those who profit off of the old system will deny virtually everything, forcing people like me and Marie to go out and prove it.