Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Accountability and Bail Bonds

As an industry, private surety bail is severely misunderstood -- to the detriment of our public safety. In reality, bail bonds are appearance bonds. Bail agents track and monitor defendants to ensure they show up for court and receive their sentences. Surety bail has done so for generations at no cost to the taxpayer.

Last week, the Sentinel quoted Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary, who stated, "Criminals bail out of jail and return to the streets." This implies that issuing a bail bond creates additional crime. Keep in mind that the majority of criminals arrested in Orange County aren't released on surety bail bonds. In fact, approximately 65 percent of alleged criminals are released by unsecured means (e.g., simply promising to return to court for subsequent hearings). Surety bail isn't the issue. Unsecured pretrial-release practices are the problem.

Orange County has a multimillion-dollar, taxpayer-funded pretrial release program. As a division of the Orange County Jail, it's supposed to release only those inmates who meet strict criteria. But the jail is overcrowded; therefore, repeat offenders with multiple charges for theft and robbery, assault, drug-related crimes, arrest with violence, failures to appear and other serious crimes are being released without secured bail.

Judicial release is another form of pretrial release. In many instances, judges opt to release inmates on their own recognizance. In layman's terms, that means defendants simply have to agree to stay out of trouble and return to court for their trials. An administrative order written by the chief judge allows judicial release; however, such release should take into account a defendant's criminal history and his or her danger to the community, which isn't always happening. There is also the question of whether or not the administrative order complies with Florida Statute.

Not surprisingly, these alternatives are significantly less effective than private surety bail, according to a number of national studies. Why? The answer is simple: accountability. Commercial bail agents and the insurance company backing the bonds are monetarily responsible for defendants released on surety bail. If a defendant flees, the agent must return the defendant to jail or pay the court -- often large sums of money. Neither a judge nor pretrial services staff are held accountable when a defendant fails to appear in court.

The Orange County Corrections Department, which operates the jail, falls under the discretion of Mayor Rich Crotty and the Board of County Commissioners. Our elected leaders need to understand that emptying the jail as fast as possible in order to save money is bad public policy. So is spending millions of tax dollars on a pretrial release program that contributes to the soaring crime rate. Until accountability becomes the criminal-justice system's mantra, our quality of life in Central Florida will continue to deteriorate. Public policy affects public safety.

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