Monday, January 19, 2015

Bail and No Bail Two Years Later

Two years ago, I posted my first blog on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I drew comparisons between the civil rights movement and the movement today for pretrial justice. Two years later, we've made progress, but not enough.

When I started working on bail and no bail, the biggest comment I received was the well-worn, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" comment. Thankfully, I think we've moved past that, and now I think that just about everyone understands that there are quite a few things concerning pretrial release and detention that really need some work. Still, I've spent the better part of eight years trying to get people to understand those issues and to improve on their own. That approach has worked in a few places, but I think the time has come to start pushing a bit harder.

So consider what's going to happen next to be a little like the civil rights marches in the 1960s. Those marches tended to force certain issues, so that people who wouldn't normally change on their own had to at least consider it. Our pretrial "marches," however, are going to be in the form of federal suits challenging state bail practices. Believe me, if you aren't ready for it, one of those lawsuits is really going to throw you for a loop. And once the federal courts start speaking with one voice, there's no place in America that can avoid pretrial reform.

Okay, you've been warned.



Saturday, January 3, 2015

Two Histories of Bail?

When I started researching bail, I noticed that there wasn't much on the history of bail. Accordingly, I started reading everything about the history, and I ended up writing quite a bit about it. It turns out that the history tells you some pretty important things, like why we've needed bail reform and how to avoid needing bail reform in the future.

Yesterday I noticed another published "history of bail" in Springer's Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. I couldn't wait to read it, especially since it was written by what I call a "bail insurance company sympathizer." I won't go into all the gory details of that right now, but maybe I will in the future if I have to.

In any event, I was anxious to see what the bail industry take on the history might be. After all, if you look at the history of bail, the commercial surety industry looks pretty bad. We only created that industry in 1900 (ironically because we thought it would reduce the numbers of people in jail who couldn't get out through the previous personal surety system), and by 1920 we had our first decent paper (written by the Dean of the Harvard Law School and a future Supreme Court Justice) saying that we need to figure out ways to stop using bondsmen. Ever since, they've been causing chaos with release and detention in America. Everyone from bail scholars and historians to police officers and judges have criticized them, and whenever anyone writes anything good about that business, it becomes pretty clear that the author was either paid off or didn't do his or her homework.

The bondsmen's history probably leaves out the fact that several states have completely eliminated them (the industry continues to try to get back into those states using some very slippery tactics), ignores the fact that the ABA national best-practice standards on pretrial release and detention calls for the abolition of the commercial surety industry, and uses the same four or five studies (most of which have been rendered useless through a Department of Justice data advisory, but that's whole other blog) to try to convince people to keep using them.

The bondsmen's history probably doesn't mention anything about the rampant abuse in the industry (documented starting in the 1920s), with commercial sureties trading bonds for sex, failing to pay for forfeited amounts, bilking clients, and knocking down the doors of random houses looking for what they call their "skips." It probably won't focus too much on their intense affiliation with ALEC, the same black bag policy group that fought against protecting children from cigarettes, that works hard to disenfranchise voters, and that continues to try to get courts across America to use commercial bail bondsmen no matter how many people it harms. And I doubt it'll go into much detail about just how much money the insurance companies make from this whole arrangement. So much money, in fact, that they have no problem spending millions on lobbyists to make sure that our system of bail continues to generate a profit.

So I was looking forward to reading it, you know?

The problem is that there was no way to buy just that article. Apparently you have to buy the whole freakin' encyclopedia just to read about the history of bail.

So . . .  I guess I'll leave a proper critique of the substance for another day. For now, just realize that there are two histories out there -- and they might not look exactly alike. I'll let you all decide which to believe. The histories that I helped to write are free, and you can find them in both our "History of Bail" document or in my recent "Fundamentals of Bail" document, both of which are on the National Institute of Corrections' and the Pretrial Justice Institute's websites. The bondsmen history is for sale at the low price of only $4,350.00 on the Springer Publishing website.

That kind of seems like a lot of money, but really it makes a lot of sense. Bondsmen, bail insurance lobbyists, and bail industry sympathizers don't think twice about making all of us pay big money simply to get out of jail, when freedom and liberty are our basic human rights. What's $4,000 for a couple of books?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Bail and the Media -- Again

I've written about this before, so I'll be short.

This is the time when media outlets start listing all of the big important news stories that happened over the last year. I was watching CNN the other day, and, as media outlets that must fill 24 hours each day probably have to do, they were discussing the relative merits of their particular list. One guy -- I can't remember who -- lamented that the media tended to focus only on sensational stories. His example was that during a recent spree of looting by about 100 people after a protest in California, the media showed footage of that particular chaotic event repeatedly. But, he said, when about 25,000 people in California marched peacefully later that week, there was no coverage. The funny thing was that while he was saying all of this, CNN again showed the footage of the looting, but not the peaceful march. Point proven.

This all reminded me of the two biggest mistakes the media can make in covering news stories about bail. The first is to focus only on the sensational story -- usually an aberrational case of pretrial misconduct -- that doesn't represent the vast majority of cases or that is shown without any sort of explanatory perspective. If all they did was simply add a line of perspective, media outlets would go quite far in reducing the amount of unnecessary fear they tend to whip up concerning crime.

The second is to think that if any particular bail story presents two sides, then that story is balanced. No, in bail, you typically have about 20 different, important, and valid sides to any particular story. But 19 of them will all basically say the same thing in different versions and with different perspectives. The twentieth, often the opinion of a bail industry or insurance lobbyist who hopes to make a few bucks, will be the opposite of everyone else.

Don't get me wrong. I love the media and I can't overstate it's importance. I majored in journalism in college and for several years I represented television, radio, cable and satellite clients in Washington, D.C. If you're a reporter, though, and you're working on a bail story, try to stay away from these two mistakes. Or just give me a buzz.

Happy New Year!