Accountability Matters: Commercial Bail is For Profit and Proud of It

Money WorksA couple weeks back we wrote an article on the surprisingly controversial topic of “MONEY” in the criminal justice system and how it is being used by some in the public sector pretrial community like a Scarlett letter to shame the commercial bail industry. Unfortunately this argument is used all too often and it is an argument that in my opinion has no merit or relevance to the issues of jail overcrowding and bail reform.

The commercial bail profession is exactly that…a profession. It employs tens of thousands of men and women all over the country. And yes…those people earn a salary for providing a service. Is that a horrible thing? Is it wrong for the tax accounting industry to charge a fee for preparing someone’s taxes? Is it wrong for your insurance agent to earn a commission from State Farm or Allstate for selling and managing your homeowners or car insurance policy? Is it wrong for your dry cleaner to charge you for cleaning your clothes? Last time I remember, these types of financial transactions were seen as valuable services and not frowned upon as for-profit money hungry business owners taking advantage of poor unaware consumers.

That being said, why is there so much criticism of the commercial bail industry for getting paid for the service that they provide? That service…facilitating the pretrial release of a qualified defendant with the assurance that the defendant will make ALL scheduled court appearances…not just the convenient ones, but ALL of them. It only seems logical that if a private for profit entity can accomplish those two tasks, facilitating release and assuring appearance at court, that those in the criminal justice system would support and applaud the efforts of such a business. Add to that, the ability of this private for-profit industry to accomplish these tasks more efficiently and more effectively than any other form of pretrial release at NO COST to the counties, and the criticism of the commercial bail industry becomes even more mind boggling.

Before I go further, I think it is important to point out a very important fact and one that is so painfully obvious that it is almost laughable that I have to mention it….public sector pretrial services employees DO NOT WORK FOR FREE. Yep…every pretrial services employee gets paid to do their job. In fact, everyone at the Pretrial Justice Institute gets a salary too. Everyone at NAPSA gets a salary. Everyone at the VERA Institute gets one. Just like you, me and everyone else, they do a job for greenbacks. In some pretrial programs, like those managed by the VERA Institute in New Orleans, the employees and executives of VERA make salaries (some over $100,000 a year) that are so large they dwarf those of some of New Orleans true essential public sector employees like school teachers, police officers and fire-fighters. All the while, pointing the finger at others for making money for doing their job. And as much as they might not want to admit this fact about themselves or even talk about it, it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

However, in the eyes of some public sector proponents getting paid or “funded” as they put it is a non-issue because they a providing FREE services to the public. Newsflash to those in the public sector pretrial community that think this way…Nothing is FREE. Everything has a cost, whether you want to accept, ignore it or spin it. Asking someone to purchase an insurance policy to be released from jail has a cost just as does letting someone out of jail for “FREE” (without an insurance policy guaranteeing their return) has a cost. The difference is that the insurance policy is paid by those that are close to the defendant and vouch for them, and so called FREE release through a pretrial program is paid for …or shall we say “funded” by taxpayer dollars. And by the way, notice that one of the options is actually an “insurance policy.” An insurance policy guaranteeing the return of that defendant to court… and the other option has no guarantee. Which method are you more comfortable with as a taxpaying member of the public? That is a no brainer in my opinion.

Money aside, it is unfortunate and to be honest, a little scary that so much of the debate around pretrial release is not about effectiveness and not about efficiency. It has been warped by some in the pretrial community into a discussion about profit and money, and the leading premise being sold by some public sector pretrial proponents in that discussion is that both are evil, unfair and unnecessary. All the while, these groups spend over $100,000,000 in taxpayer funds annually ($58 million alone in Washington DC) running their programs, paying their employees and letting defendants out of jail for FREE ) remember with NO GUARANTEE OF RETURN and no accountability by those that are responsible for ensuring those people make it to court.

I would like to propose that instead of focusing on profits and non-profits, that the pretrial/bail reform debate focus on things that are more important. Things like effectiveness. Things like efficiency. Things like accountability. There is no shortage of data or research that answers those questions. There have been private research studies, government funded research studies, educational research studies done, and they have the same conclusion. Financially secured release is the most effective way to ensure that those released pretrial show up for court. Unfortunately for the public sector pretrial community, none of that data generated in those independent studies support their approach. That is why we never hear them mention it. That is why it doesn’t enter the conversation. When you are dealing with issues like public safety and the criminal justice system shouldn’t that be the thrust of the discussion? Shouldn’t those things be the foundation of the solution? Letting more and more people out of jail more quickly and for FREE in order to be “fair” is not the answer. It only exacerbates the problem and teaches those the break the law that there will be no accountability and no real punishment for their actions. And rewarding bad behavior in this way only leads to one thing…more bad behavior.

If some of those in the pretrial community want to have a debate about money and the cost of business, the commercial bail industry is ready to have that discussion all day long. Because the commercial bail industry operates at NO COST to the county while public sector pretrial programs operate at significant cost. When all is said and done, the reality is that everyone pays and everyone gets paid and it’s time for the pot to stop calling the kettle black. It is time for us all to put real thought into making the criminal justice system work as effectively and as fairly as possible by using the tools and processes that work best.

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