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Suzanne Manneh New America Media
Published: 29 September 2012

SAN FRANCISCO—If you were to get arrested in Kentucky, Wisconsin, Illinois, or Oregon, or other jurisdictions such as Washington, D.C.; Broward County, Florida; or Philadelphia,

Pennsylvania, finding a bail bonds agency and the sufficient funds to make bail would be one less concern.

That's because according to the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a national nonprofit law and justice advocacy and research organization, these locations have eliminated money bail. In a series of JPI studies released this month, the organization is calling for all states to end for-profit bail bonds practices.

Two reports were released earlier this month: "Bail Fail: Why the U.S. Should End the Practice of Money Bail," and "For Better or For Profit: How the Bail Bonding Industry Stands in the Way of Fair and Effective Pretrial Justice."  A final report is scheduled for release on September 25, and will provide first-hand accounts from Baltimore, Maryland residents' experiences with the money bail system.

Both studies suggest that for-profit money bail is a problematic policy that is especially harmful to the poor and communities of color, and call for it to be eliminated.

Instead, JPI offers solutions such as using pretrial services, which would include a risk assessment – an evaluation that would determine if the individual poses a danger to the community, conducted by judges to determine who to release and how to release. Those released would undergo mediation as well as frequent monitoring and supervision. Depending on their charges and the results of their risk assessments, they can be released with, for example, weekly visitations from a probation officer, a tracking device, and drug testing and rehabilitation when applicable.

Other key recommendations include issuing court notifications to remind people of their court hearings, which would prevent failure-to-appear rates, as well as considering the voices of all parties involved, including the victim's, when deciding on the individual's pretrial.

Tracy Velazquez, Executive Director of JPI, noted that approximately 60 percent of individuals detained nationally who are not convicted are being detained on low bail amounts, but they remain in jail awaiting the resolution of their charges because they cannot afford to pay a for-profit bail agency. JPI reports state that between June 2010 and June 2011, nearly 12 million people were processed through jails in the United States. Since the year 2000, U.S. jails have operated at an average of 91 percent capacity.

What's equally alarming, said Velazquez, is the amount of people detained who plead guilty just to expedite their release.

"[In] as high as a quarter to half of cases nationally, the detained individual pleads guilty just to get out of jail and not lose their job or their kids." She said that this was the result of their not being able to find a bail agency and afford to pay to get out.

"Sometimes they are dismissed because they had already served time while they were awaiting their trials. It's also punishing people before they are found guilty, or if they aren't [found guilty]," she said.

One of the greatest concerns highlighted in the reports is the impact high money bail has on communities of color and the poor.

The reports note that while 12 percent of the total U.S. population is black, blacks comprise 38 percent of the U.S. jail population. Blacks ages 18 through 29 received significantly higher bail amounts than all other ethnic and racial groups, and likely can't afford to pay the 10 percent bond to be released.

Because of this, Velazquez suggested, people who earn lower wages or are members of minority communities have no choice but to stay in jail.

"People who stay in jail were more likely to be found guilty regardless of the merits of the case. Think about it – they show up to court looking guilty," she said.

Velazquez also noted that many victims in groups she has interviewed prefer the pretrial system to providing the suspect with the opportunity to bail him or herself out.

But Dennis Bartlett, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, a national organization representing the for-profit bail industry, disagrees with several of the report's findings and recommendations. He said that there is a significant need for the bail bond industry.

"The commercial bail industry does what it's supposed to do – get the defendant to trial on time. The reason pretrial agencies are not flourishing is because they do not do that job very well." He said 97 to 98 percent of all money bail clients nationally make their court dates.

Eric Granof, vice president of Corporate Communications for AIA Bail Bond Insurance Company, the largest underwriter of bail in the country, echoed Bartlett and shared his concerns regarding JPI's reports.

He added that the bail bond industry is too often misrepresented by reality shows and Hollywood as the "scum bags of the Earth," and said they have developed the website expertbail.com to "challenge these misperceptions." He also contested that 60 percent of individuals in jail are awaiting trial, because not all are "bailable."

"That is a misrepresentation because some are awaiting transfers to other states, some are on an INS [immigration] hold, and some are too dangerous to be released."

But he said there is a need for both pretrial programs and money bail programs. "We understand that there is a role for pretrial services," he said.

"There are people that need help with substance abuse, and putting them through a pretrial is better than letting them out on bail. But there is a [higher] level of appearance rates that happen [from money bail] because we outperform every other form," he said.

However, Tim Murray, Director of the Pretrial Justice Institute in Washington D.C, where money bail has been eliminated, says the key issue is that money bail does not address public safety.

"It [money bail] was never designed to make the community safe. There is no accountability," he said, adding that bail money goes "directly into the pockets of businessmen."

"The nation currently houses more pretrial defendants in jail than they do convicted criminals. The costs are staggering, but it doesn't have to be so," he said. "The system favors those who have cash, regardless to the danger they pose to the community."

He provided an example of an experienced car thief and a novice car thief caught together. "The experienced car thief will buy his way out, while the novice remains in jail, but who do we, the concerned community, want to monitor?"

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