Sunday, March 9, 2014

Bail Insurance Companies, Risk Assessment, and Leeches

Sometimes I read something I can hardly believe. Recently a bail insurance company -- you know, the kind of company that supports bail bondsmen so that if someone skips court, there is some pool of money lying around  to help pay -- said in a blog that it thinks pretrial risk assessment is a "shiny new toy" that is unnecessary to the field of pretrial release. That's because, the company explains, bondsmen are the kind of soothsayers that know, in their guts, whether or not someone is a good or bad risk for coming back to court. What makes this hard to believe is that this is an insurance company (i.e., a company that typically uses all kinds of actuarial instruments to determine risk for, say, health or life insurance) writing that an actuarial instrument is nothing more than a toy. That's a bit like a doctor saying, "Well, I like to use the modern medical procedures for treating most illnesses, but for cancer I prefer the leeches."

Everybody at bail is trying to determine defendant risk. That's because American law has evolved to practically demand that we embrace the risk of releasing defendants pretrial. So you would think that a statistical tool that would help us determine who the riskiest defendants are would be something everyone could get behind. Well, apparently not the bail insurance companies.

I think the reason those companies cringe when they hear about new ways of doing bail is because those new ways always shine a harsh light on the for-profit bail industry. When commercial sureties were introduced in America in about 1900, everyone was pretty excited thinking that they would actually help get bailable people out of jail. Unfortunately, they only made things worse because they charged fees and starting picking who they would help to release not based so much on risk but on their ability to pay those fees. Over the years, bondsmen and insurance companies have made it so it's virtually impossible for them to lose money. They only take people who can pay the fee and collateralize the potential amount owed. If the defendant skips, there are laws on the books in most states that make it practically impossible to force anyone but the defendant or his or her family to pay. As one bail bondsmen once said here in Colorado, "My job is to protect the insurance company from the loss . . . it's not a greed thing, we just don't want to pay." So, really, in the bail bond business, actual risk has little to do with anything. Who cares about risk when you don't have to pay?

Risk instruments also make the bail insurance companies cringe because those instruments assess risk that a defendant (1) may not show up for court and (2) may commit some new offense while on release, and that reminds people that the for-profit bail industry has absolutely nothing to do with public safety. If a bondsmen helps someone by agreeing to pay the financial condition of a bail bond, that money will never be lost if the defendant commits a new crime. Bondsmen potentially only lose the money if the defendant doesn't show up for court; in fact, a new crimes simply present new business opportunities for bondsmen. The fact that commercial bail bondsmen and the insurance companies that support them do nothing for public safety makes them like a horse and buggy riding along next to the new Ford plant. Its days are numbered. We have two constitutionally valid purposes for limiting pretrial freedom -- public safety and court appearance -- and the fact that the for-profit bail industry consistently only addresses one of these is, alone, cause for us to radically re-think our use of it.

As usual, the blog refers to BJS data that it says shows commercial bail bonds are "the most effective way" to get defendants back to court (note how it only addresses court appearance). A few years ago BJS itself was alerted to the insurance companies using its data to say the same thing, and BJS responded by issuing an rare advisory essentially telling everyone, but especially those insurance companies and bondsmen, that they can't make those types of statements anymore. The data simply don't support them. I know the insurance companies knew about the data advisory because at the time it was issued they complained loudly about it. Now, apparently, they have just decided to ignore it. The fact is that the commercial surety system in America is so flawed and unfair, so fundamentally backward, that even if someone could convince me that bondsmen do help get people back to court better than say, police (they can't, by the way), I would still say that we need to re-evaluate the utility of the for-profit system because it has nothing to do with public safety and in the aggregate only causes unnecessary pretrial detention.

In the end, the author of the blog says that criminal justice and bail are complex. They are, but I have found that when people understand the complexity, they are quick to jettison the for-profit bail system as something that simply hasn't kept up.