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If LA Wants to Reform Its Pretrial Detention Strategy, Who Would Stand in the Way? by Matthew Fleischer

May 18th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


EDITOR’S NOTE: A few years ago, Florida’s largest counties noticed that the majority of the people crowding their jails
were awaiting trial. The majority of those being detained were not charged with serious offenses, which meant they could have bailed out, but they simply couldn’t afford to do so. So they languished behind bars and the county paid the tab. Facing tight budgets and overcrowded jails, those same Florida counties decided to institute a system of pretrial release for the people who qualified. Now, many California counties are looking at similar strategies, most particularly the state’s largest county, our own Los Angeles.

Of late, Sheriff Baca appears to have grown genuinely serious about pretrial alternatives, especially following the recent release of the report on the matter by prison and jail population expert, James Austin, a report with which the sheriff closely cooperated.

So will it be a go? After all, given our own jail overcrowding and tight budget issues, who would oppose such a plan, especially if it’s worked well in other complicated jurisdictions?

WitnessLA reporter Matt Fleischer has the answer to that very question.

(Oh, and in addition to what Matt tells you, you might want to ask Florida.)


by Matt Fleischer

It’s been more than a year since California Governor Jerry Brown signed the AB 109 prison realignment plan into law, which allows non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex offenders to serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons. Since that time, county governments have been struggling to keep up with the overcrowding in their jails caused by the influx of inmates serving their sentences locally. And they aren’t happy about it.

In a budget address this week, Manhattan Beach City Manager Dave Carmany, forced to hire a new jailer due to a rising local inmate population, argued that AB 109 was straining the municipal criminal justice system—especially the jails—and was somehow responsible for a local crime wave. “AB 109 and its effect on sentencing,” he wrote, “has created a sense among criminals that the risk is worth the consequence.”

According to a study released this week by The Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice, a San Francisco based a criminal justice reform think, however, the problem of jail overcrowding far predates AB 109. According to the report, in 2010, 71 percent of inmates in California’s various county jail systems were not yet convicted of any crime—rather they were charged and are awaiting trial. We’re talking about a population of roughly 50,000 people out of a total jail population of 71,000. Keeping these individuals incarcerated costs taxpayers $100 a day per head. Save the calculator. I’ll do the math for you: that’s $1.85 billion a year.

Obviously, some are dangerous people accused of serious crimes, who can’t be safely released into the public sphere. But plenty are fit for release with a pretrial system of check-ins and electronic monitoring. So why aren’t they being let go? The commercial bail industry and its powerful lobby are the prime roadblock, argues the CJCJ. Simply put, the bail companies don’t want to lose the income that pretrial release would eliminate.

Jails are now more often utilized as a facility to house those awaiting resolution of the charges filed against them, as opposed to sentenced offenders who are serving their time. The commercial bail system has significantly led to this increase of the unsentenced jail population.

Moreover, the commercial bail system has discriminated against poor and middle class defendants and the monetary terms of bail imposed results in racially disparate detention. For instance, Latino and African American defendants are more likely to be held in jail than whites because they cannot afford to post bail. The mortgage crisis has further exacerbated the disparate detention of the poor and people of color. Historically, individuals and families used their homes as collateral to raise funds to pay for bail. Unfortunately, high rates of bankruptcy, foreclosure, and plunging home values in low-income communities mean that fewer people are able to use their homes as collateral to post bond.

The Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice report isn’t the first to delve into this territory in recent memory. In 2011, the VERA Institute published a report on the pernicious role private bail plays in the LA County Jail system. Among other interesting tidbits, the report noted that in order to ease overcrowding, the LA Sheriff’s Department instituted a minimum bail of $25,000 before they will allow an arrestee to be booked at the Inmate Reception Center. Judges responded by simply raising their bail settings to $25,000—even for nonviolent crimes. Standard bail requested by prosecutors for many low-level felonies like hand-to-hand drug sales, if the accused has priors, is often as high as $250,000

This series of moves virtually guaranteed that poor individuals with no house to put up as bond stayed in jail for months—even years— at a time until their trial date. Although private bail bond companies will post bond, they will only do so for a 10 percent, non-refundable fee up front. If you don’t have the money—and there are plenty of folks out there who don’t have $2,500 cash to spare, much less $25,000–you’re staying in jail.

The Vera report advised that pretrial detention be based on actual risk assessment, rather than an arbitrary bail fee. A year later, with the more recent release of Dr. James Austin’s plan to close Men’s Central Jail, the Sheriff’s Department is taking this idea seriously. Austin identified 1,000 non-violent pretrial inmates who could be released with electronic monitoring. This kind of system costs $2.50 per day instead of $100.

Dale Miller of the California Bail Agents Association, however, counters that electronic monitoring is unreliable.

“In Texas, a recent study showed that close to 70 percent alerts were false alarms. If you get all this noise, how do you know what’s a real violation?”

Miller also argues that the 71 percent pretrial detention figure in California is misleading.

“It’s true that 29 percent in county jails are convicted. But that doesn’t mean 71 percent are pretrial. You got probation and parole violators, ICE holds. These people are counted as pretrial, but a pretrial agency can’t release them.”

Miller says there are better ways to deal with jail overcrowding than unbonded pretrial release. “My issues are that bails tend to be way too high. LA County’s bail schedule is huge. [The bail bond industry] can get people out of custody for much, much smaller amounts of bond, and keep tabs on them without taxpayers footing the bill.”

All that said, the bail bond industry claim they are not actively lobbying against Austin’s plan. Miller was unfamiliar with the specifics of the report, as was Dennis Bartlett of the American Bail Coalition. But, Bartlett told me, “Jim Austin is considered an objective source, whose research I usually trust.”

Bartlett added the caveat, however, that the idea of electronic monitoring without a surety bond is a bad one.

“In the state of Georgia, a GPS monitoring system can only be used in combination with an surety bond. That system seems to work very well. If you’re release people haphazardly, then you’ve got people going everywhere with no one keeping a serious eye on them. I’d have reservations about that.”

However, since “surety bond” is just another fancy way of describing the same pay-for-freedom scheme that got us here in the first place, it isn’t clear what change Bartlett’s strategy would represent.

As of now, the Austin plan does not call for surety bonds to accompany electronic monitoring. If surety bonds suddenly become a sticking point during negotiations with the LA County Board of Supervisors and the CEO, we’ll have a good idea why.

PS: In 2010 NPR’s Laura Sullivan did an excellent 3-part series on the issues surrounding pretrial release and the bail system that’s worth a listen. The last part of the series had to do with the battle over Florida.

***The photo of Dog the Bounty Hunter is courtesy of his fan club site: He is not actually a bail bondsman, yet he’s nevertheless undeniably picturesque and he often works for bail bondsmen retrieving bail jumpers, hence the frail rationale for his visual inclusion here. We have no idea how he stands on pretrial release.

Posted in LA County Jail, pretrial detention/release, Realignment, Sheriff Lee Baca | 8 Comments »

8 Responses

  1. Morning Buzz: Friday 5.18.12 | LA News Talk Radio Says:

    [...] Will the bail bonds lobby try to stop reform of pre-trial release to ease jail crowding? Witness LA [...]

  2. a Says:

    the author, the bail insurance industry, and most judges in the courts, ironically, don’t even know what the complex legal definition of the “term” bail is. its impossible to have an intelligent discussion on the subject if the import of the legal term “bail” is not understood. ps – pretrial release is not bail.

  3. a Says:

    the feds have testified in federal court thousands of times that gps ankle bracelets are utterly useless.

  4. Lakerman Says:

    “If La wants reform to pre-trial detention strategy”
    I live in Los Angeles County and I want to see criminals locked up regardless if they are violent/non violent or sentenced or pre sentenced. I have a family and I don’t want them victimized by a criminal who is not in jail because he is not sentenced. This whole idea is nuts. I am aware about the troubled jails but this is not the answer. The jail deputies and street deputies need more supervision with their daily activities. A bunch of young in mature deputies acting stupid and not being supervised is what created this whole monster.

  5. Woody Says:

    When violent criminals are released (video)

  6. 10-33 Go Says:

    I can see this from both perspectives. On the one hand, a lot of people we arrest are not such a material risk to anybody that they should be held pre-trial. On the other hand, I was taught on my first day in patrol, and it has been reinforced every day since, that our job is to put criminals in jail and not to help them get out–and this has been particularly reinforced when we as deputies and officers are asked to complete our recommendations regarding whether someone should be able to get a reduced bail or be released on their own recognizance. The answers are always no … and I was called on the carpet by several, independent supervisors about it the one time I said yes. So I agree there needs to be a rethink for how people are scored with respect to risk. But at the same time, let there be no mistake that crime will go up when we increase the number of criminals (of whatever degree) pre-trial. It absolutely, positively will. And, to the extent we’re still enjoying low-ish crime rates now, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that a ton of criminals are in jail, albeit in a pre-trial status.

    My feeling is that the fix here has to be geared at reducing unnecessary confinement of people who are not otherwise a significant risk of immediate/near-term recidivism. Economic means should absolutely not be the test. That is irrelevant to the risk they pose and that’s the issue. Moreover, in my experience, most of the people I’ve arrested for felonies (violent or otherwise) were unemployed and of little means (heavily dependent upon taxpayers, EBT, etc.), but were lifelong criminals. Finally, I think the arresting officer or deputy, who knows the incident and crime the best and most objectively, should have a say (as we do now) in confinement versus monitoring, but there should be a more objective, point-based process for gathering this input than the current “yes/no” type form. For example, I think it should matter if the arrestee made threats to the other party, or was drunk/high, or used a weapon, or, alternatively, whether the arrestee is the home’s sole provider (other than the government, of course).

    This seems solveable. But this does get into more traditionally private sector areas of risk management vs risk/reward, and it will be interesting to see how county and department bureaucrats function in this paradigm.

    PS: We should also remember that many, maybe most, people arrested for crimes and who are charged simply plea before they ever face a trial. They’re guilty and they get good deals. Not sure how this factors into the problem/solution–but it’s a fact that very, very, very few cases go to trial these days.

  7. Prophet Mo Teff Says:

    The bail bond industry benefits from continued negative publicity about conditions and practices in the county jail system.

    The negative publicity feeds a heightened perception of the discomfort and hazards that an arrestee may endure while in custody.

    The result is a lowering of the threshold for panic and distress felt by concerned friends and relatives of an arrestee.

    This functions to increase the sense of urgency to meet bail and gain release of the arrestee.

    The bail bondsman profits from a clientele willing to sacrifice a greater level of assets to purchase a bond.

    The bondsman also benefits from a client too distressed to shop for bailbond services and too rushed to make a proper analysis of the contract the bondsman has placed before them for signing.

  8. expert Says:

    Yes, Dog the Bounty Hunter is against pretrial release:

    Yes, it benefits his company – he is a bail bondsman.

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