Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sheriffs Say "No" to Bondsmen

Here's a link to PJI's coverage of the National Sheriffs' Association Conference, in which the Sheriffs voted not to endorse the commercial bail bondsmen in any way.

The bondsmen -- I should say the bail insurance companies, who have been angling for this for a while -- wanted the Sheriffs to say in a resolution that commercial bail bondsmen were indispensably valuable to the criminal justice system. The Sheriffs said "no," and it's not really hard to see why.

Back in a 2012 resolution, the Sheriffs publicly recognized the value of high functioning pretrial services programs "to enhance public safety; promote a fair and effective justice system; provide assistance to sheriffs in the administering of a safe jail and reducing jail crowding; and help relieve the financial burden on taxpayers." The "whereas's" that set the tone for the resolution were especially telling. One said that a justice system relying on financial conditions of release at the pretrial stage is inconsistent with a fair and efficient justice system. Another talked about the purpose of limiting pretrial release -- to help assure court appearance and public safety. Yet another talked about how most pretrial inmates are incarcerated solely due to their inability to pay the secured financial condition of their bond. So, you see, you couldn't possibly expect the Sheriffs to endorse commercial bail bondsmen. Here's the breakdown.

The Sheriffs are concerned with public safety in addition to court appearance. The bondsmen, however, have no interest whatsoever in public safety, mostly because they don't lose any money if a defendant on one of their bonds commits a new crime. As long as the defendant doesn't miss court, a new crime is simply a new business opportunity for bondsmen. This represents a primary failure of the commercial bail bonding business -- there are two constitutionally valid reasons for limiting a defendant's pretrial freedom: (1) court appearance, and (2) public safety. Bondsmen and bail insurance companies only care about one, and it isn't public safety.

The Sheriffs care about a fair and efficient justice system. The bondsmen, however, like the idea of determining who gets left in jail based on how much money they have. This, of course, is the epitome of an unfair justice system. Moreover, when you base release on wealth, the people you leave in jail wind up costing a heck of a lot of money. It often costs communities $100 or more per day to house a defendant in jail, while release under the supervision of a pretrial services program or agency might cost only $5 per day or less. The inefficiencies associated with the administration of bail based primarily on secured bonds administered by commercial sureties are staggering.

The Sheriffs care about a safe jail that isn't crowded.The bondsmen, however, could care less about safe jails, and crowding jails is really the only thing that they're any good at. Ever since America changed to using primarily secured bonds administered by commercial sureties in about 1900, we have continued to have big problems with jail crowding. Basing release on wealth causes unnecessary pretrial detention. But basing release on wealth is the bondsman's raison d'etre.

The Sheriffs also care about relieving the taxpayers' burden. Here's the tricky one, because the bail insurance companies continually accuse pretrial services agencies of being "criminal welfare programs," etc., which cost the public more than bondsmen. The problem, of course, is that release to a bondsmen and release to a pretrial services program are two completely different things. Like I said, bondsmen only "supervise" -- if you can even call it that -- defendants to make sure they come to court. If a judge wants some sort of supervision to protect the public, the bondsmen can't (or won't) do it. It's just not in their business model. So whenever a judge orders some condition of release designed to give reasonable assurance of public safety in addition to court appearance, that judge has no choice but to rely on pretrial services program supervision to see it through. On top of this, remember when I said earlier that if a defendant doesn't have any money, bondsmen and bail insurance companies have no problem letting him or her sit in jail at $100 or more per day. That's a taxpayer burden that they could really care less about. They'll argue to the death how expensive it is to have a guy supervised in the community for $5 per day, but they won't say a thing about the defendants that they leave in the jail.

So it's no surprise that the Sheriffs said "no" to the bondsmen. It would have just been too weird to care about public safety, a fair and efficient justice system, safe jails, and the taxpayers, and then endorse a group that doesn't seem interested in any of those things.