Saturday, September 24, 2011

Cry me a river: Weaning time for Harris County bail bondsmen

Bail bonding agencies and bounty hunters are in the midst of a business downturn in Harris County, and the reasons could stem from efforts to ease overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

“No one’s getting paid and no money is coming in,” said Randy Kubosh, of Kubosh Bail Bonds in Houston.

Kubosh said the phones at his Lubbock Street office have nearly stopped ringing in recent months and he blames a spike in the issuance of personal recognizance, or PR bonds, for killing a lot of business.
This is not only no cause for concern, it's actually evidence at least some Harris County judges are finally taking seriously their share of responsibility for overcrowding at the Harris County Jail. The development reverses a long-term trend of reduced access to personal bonds for defendants. From 1994-2004, according to a consultant hired by the county to analyze the process, the number of misdemeanor defendants who were ordered to pay bail instead of being released on "personal bond" increased more than 30,000%. (Not a typo: That's thirty thousand percent!) Personal bonds for felony defendants declined over the same period by more than 94%.

The consultant in 2005 criticized, "the existence of [a] large block of apparently low risk defendants in detention ... who pose no significant risk of nonappearance or of danger to public safety [but] remain in pretrial detention because of inability to post bond." In that context, it's welcome news that, "According to figures obtained by KHOU, the number of PR bonds given to felony offenders has significantly increased in Harris County, climbing by nearly 90 percent over the last three years."

That figure surprises me, but I'd want to see the underlying data before making too much of that statistic. The reality is, because the rate of personal bonds granted had plummeted so low, there's a lot of room for increasing that number. Let's say for simplicity's sake (not the actual numbers) that in 1994, 1,000 felons were given personal bonds. If as the consultant found, that number reduced by 94% over the next decade, it would mean 60 felons got personal bonds in 2004. So starting from that low number, increasing the number of personal bonds by 90% would mean just 114 felons received personal bonds - still far lower than in the past. A 90% increase AFTER a 94% reduction doesn't remotely get you back to where you started. In that context, the figure wouldn't be such a shock.

Still, just a few years ago, officials said it would require expanding jail capacity to solve the Harris Jail's overcrowding problem, but if this trend continues it should relieve pressure on the jail. According to the latest jail population report (pdf) from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, as of Sept 1 Harris County incarcerated 8,843 inmates in the county jail, with a total capacity of 10,162. Another 769 inmates were housed elsewhere (in other counties or in a private prison in Louisiana).

That said, it's clear not all judges are doing what they can to reduce jail overcrowding, particularly as it regards sentencing low-level drug offenders with less-than-a-gram possession cases. In 2003, Texas changed the law to mandate such offenders receive probation on the first offense instead of incarcerating them in TDCJ state jails. But judges in Harris County - uniquely among Texas counties - began sentencing those offenders to serve up to six months in the county jail as a "condition" of probation, creating extra pressure on the jail population. Those sentenced thusly have reduced somewhat, but as of Sept. 1 around 6.5% of inmates incarcerated in the Harris County Jail were probationers serving such sentences, or 576 inmates (down from nearly a thousand just a few years ago). By comparison, here are the numbers for other large Texas counties on state jail felons sentenced to county jail as a probation condition:
Dallas: 70
Travis: 44
Tarrant: 77
Bexar: 0
El Paso: 40
Simply ending this one practice would free up enough beds to allow Harris to stop paying other counties to house their inmates. Without having seen court-by-court-data, I'd guess the reduction stems from some judges having discontinued the practice (or being replaced at the ballot box), but clearly some Harris judges still rely more heavily on this sentencing tactic than other jurisdictions.

In any event, don't weep for Harris County bail bondsmen, who've profited immensely over the years as judges subsidized their business by requiring bonds for low-risk offenders, filling up the jail with folks who in other counties would be released on personal bonds.  For bail bondsmen, as with cattle, "Weaning time is a very traumatic experience." But that doesn't mean the day won't come when it's time to join the rest of the planet in detaching their lips from the public teat, even if, as with a persistent calf, it requires a swift kick or two before they finally get the message.


Anonymous said...

If Smith County had taken this approach they wouldn't have had to plead with voters for a jail expansion for the last several years. But, when you've got bail bondsman taking the people who run the sheriff's department on gambling trips and giving gifts to jailer for referrals, well.... Add to that judges who do their best to maintain and expand the oppressive power of the criminal justice political particular, Jack Skeen, whom the DA has cases assigned to when they want high bonds to pressure weak cases into pleading...well

Anonymous said...

A certain bondsman mentioned here maintains a luxo suite at Taxpayer Ballpork with his brothers the lawyers...probably has quite a guest of the lawyer brothers recently took on fund raising for the Harris County R party and will surely be looking to put some more 'tough on crime' judges on the bench.

Anonymous said...

Not to worry, they are making a fortune on immigration bonds and probation warrant bonds.

gravyrug said...

This is definitely not limited to TX. Back in MS,I was once taken in for an expired DL, and was offered bail before there was even any talk of a hearing, much less seeing a judge. Very first thing when I got to the police station was a discussion of how much it would cost me to get out.

KBCraig said...

I hate the bond racket; it is punishment without conviction, often without even charges.

The ostensible reason for bond is to help ensure the accused will appear in court. In reality, bond required in almost every case, with no examination at all of the likelihood the accused with abscond. It's often based on the seriousnesses of the charge; a murder defendant with solid family ties and no likelihood of escape will be jailed with a million dollar bond, while a serial robber with a history of FTA bonds out for a few thousand.

Like almost all of the arraignment and pretrial process, assessing bond has become pro forma.

Anonymous said...

Ask any defense attorney here in Harris county and he'll likely agree that we're seeing an incredible increase in the stacking of charges. Almost everyone arrested faces at least two charges stemming from one incident. You get the original or legitimate charge, then you get what I term the "hammer" charge, designed to force a plea agreement before an indictment is issued. If the hammer charge is disputed it is usually dropped without presentation to a grand jury, but, regardless, the defendant must post bond on it before getting released from jail. No way I can prove it but, I think it's a conspiracy between the DA and the county's law enforcement. Maybe some disgruntled ADA or even an officer with one of the agencies will come forward in the future and spill the beans...

john said...

I don't disagree with o=your argument, and it doesn't surprise me Harris Co. is the worst. But aren't bondsmen just another form of lobbyist (and they are their own special interest)? And won't somebody say the same thing in general for lawyers and even judges? They act like they're there to make money, by any means necessary--either within, near or without the partial limits provided by an out-of-touch legislature--themselves seeking only to be re-elected. ALL the gov folk have the conflict of interest in justifying their jobs or increasing their power, as opposed to being public servants. Anyone not in the club or servicing it is really out of luck.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

While not anywhere close to being a "disgruntled former" Harris County ADA, Mr. Casey O'Brien aka: jigmeister, proudly professed in a post retirement observation comment over at
Simple Justice something that might shed a light on part of the problem.

"...there are three kinds of cases that go to trial, with many exceptions, the very serious, the very solid and the very close. The other 95% pled out." Maybe the "King of Nolo Contendere" will chime in and expand on this hot topic?

Nevertheless, the taxpayers continue to fund the Texas cattle drive loop as Bail Bondsmen poor mouth all the way to the frigin bank. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Although this bond problem has been going on in Harris County for a long time, it got significantly worse when the "Republican sweep" came through the Harris County Criminal Court system in the '80's. With 22 Felony Courts, and 15 Misdemeanor Courts, at one time we had approximately 85% of the Judges handling criminal cases in Harris County that had little, if any, experience in representing individuals accused of criminal offenses. For most, it was a three stage process, 1) go to law school, 2) go to work for the DA's Office, 3) get appointed Judge! Or, in a few cases, leave the DA's Office for a SHORT period of time, usually taking court appointments from their other ex-DA Judges until the Democrat on the bench's term expired, then run for that bench. They claimed their extensive "trial experience" and "tough on crime" and "law and order" stance to get them elected. Many of the judges never "left the DA's office" even after they became Judges. It was, and often IS, strikingly apparent when one observed the evidentiary rulings and what items were admitted, or sustained, and what were excluded, or overruled. A Court Trial was completely out of the question. Motions to Suppress were a joke in many Courts. One Judge was said to have been overheard in one of their "Judges Meetings" when the current law on Suppressions was being presented to them by the Judge's Lawyer, Marshal Chelsey, the Judge said "I've never granted a Motion to Suppress, and don't intend to start now!" Other Courts refused to grant probation without jail time as a condition. But, I digress. Back to the bond issue. The public is completely unaware of the number of individuals accused of a criminal offense that are actually innocent of any wrong doing, but cannot defend themselves because they cannot afford to make bond. They are working, have a house or apartment payment, have a car note, children to support, and work from payday to payday to keep these expenses paid, no surplusage. They are appointed counsel, since they have no funds to hire a lawyer either, and maintain their innocense demanding a trial. They are informed that they can have a trial, but it will be 3 to 6 months from now. They advise that they will lose everything, house, vehicle, job, etc., at which time they are told, "If you plead Guilty today, you can be out tonite" which they usually do. "Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty and for no other reason" is complete bullshit in many cases! It is strictly a business decision, no more, no less. The additional downside is that should they be pulled over later for some traffic offense, the conviction shows up on their screen creating a negative presumption in the officer's mind that this individual has a prior criminal history, not the circumstances of the conviction.

As one of our prior Judges (having served in Family, Civil, and Criminal Courts) Judge Felix Salizar (deceased) so eloquently put it, "No one should be allowed to be a Judge until you have practiced law on the streets for at least 5 years, given your secretary a post-dated check, sent the light bill payment to the gas company, the gas bill to the water company, etc., and tried to collect fees from people who need help, but suffer from the sin of poverty. Otherwise, you have no idea what the practice of law is!" Couldn't have been said better! God Bless your soul, Felix.

Kevin Stouwie said...

I find it amusing that the Google Adwords ad on the bottom of the website (at least on my computer) says, "Become A Bondsman".

Anonymous said...

Bondsmen in our area love to write bonds for illegals that also have an ICE hold on them. They take the money and the accused is never released and he quits getting credit for his pretrial detention because he is technically on bond.

There is something horribly unfair about a system that allows the abuses that we all know occur to folks that we claim to be protected by the presumption of innocence.