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Bill would curb pretrial release programs

Posted June 13, 2012
Updated September 23, 2015

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A bill that would limit when publicly-funded pretrial release programs could help defendants get out of jail is making its way through the General Assembly despite objections from some judges and sheriffs.

The measure passed a House Judiciary subcommittee Wednesday morning.

Jail cell Committee passes pretrial program changes

It pits backers of the program – including many judges and sheriffs – against bail bondsmen, who say the taxpayer-supported programs are cutting into their business and not doing as good of a job.

After someone is arrested, a magistrate sets conditions of release that can range from a written promise to appear – a defendant signs their name and pledges to come to court – to a secured bond, in which money or property is pledged to ensure a defendant shows up.

Defendants who are wealthy enough can post their own bond or hire a bail bondsman to do it for a percentage of the cost.

First offenders, people with jobs and stable ties to the community and others deemed less of a risk to re-offend or flee are able to bypass bond and be put into the pretrial release program.

Programs screen defendants

Not every county has a pretrial program, but they exist in most of the state's urban areas including Wake, Durham and Mecklenburg counties. Typically, they are run by nonprofit agencies that contract with the county government and focus on lower-income defendants. Exactly how they function is different from county-to-county, but all conduct background checks on suspects that often include interviews with the alleged offenders, their families and victims.

Those who don't meet those criteria typically have to wait for a bail hearing the day after their arrest. It's at that hearing pretrial programs deliver reports on each defendant to the court and recommend whether they stay in jail or are released. Senate Bill 756 would keep pretrial programs from interviewing those defendants and making such recommendations for 48 hours.

Backers of pretrial programs say the measure would handcuff the courts' ability to identify when defendants should be released prior to trial, cost taxpayers money and unduly punish people not yet convicted of a crime.

"Any delay for us amounts to more people in my jail," said Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison. "The pretrial program helps us with that."

Greensboro Police Chief Ken Miller told the committee that the measure would "break" the system of cooperation between the police, judges and prosecutors.

"What it will do is drive up crime in our community," Miller told the committee.

But bail bondsmen and their allies, including some district attorneys, say pretrial programs aren't as good at screening for potential risk factors as they should be. To boot, bondsmen say, pretrial programs take money out of their pocket.

"They're in direct competition with us," said Mark Black, a lawyer and lobbyists for the N.C. Bail Agents Association. "They're getting folks out who are bondable."

Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, told the committee Tuesday that his objective was to ensure people who might be able to afford private bonds are not entered into pretrial programs. He did acknowledge that some people would not be able to post bond no matter what.

"This legislation would really affect the indigent, the poor people who do not have money to post bond," said Chuck Johnson, who heads Wake County's pretrial program, which is run by ReEntry Incorporated.

Every weekday, Johnson said, his agency will screen the roughly 60 defendants who are due to come before the Wake County Court at 2 p.m. for their bail hearings. Of those, many won't meet the screening criteria because their alleged crime is too violent, they don't have an address or are otherwise unqualified. Those with a history of missing court dates are passed over, for example.

"First and foremost, we're concerned with public safety," Johnson said. While his program will monitor anyone the court orders into pretrial release, he said, his staff interviews and recommends those who pose the least risk to society.

On a typical day in Wake County, that group of candidates for pretrial release amounts to 5 to 10 people, many of whom couldn't afford to pay the $150 fee bondsmen would charge for a $1,000 bond.

Of the 1,357 defendants Wake County's pretrial program tracked last year, Johnson said, about 90 percent made their court appearances with no problem.

The N.C. Sheriffs Association has not taken a position on the bill. But Harrison said lawmakers should leave the pretrial program alone.

"I like the way it is," Harrison said. It costs $70 or more per day to keep an individual in jail. For the 1,357 people that Wake County released to pretrial programs last year, an extra two days in jail would have cost roughly taxpayers $190,000, compared to $1.55 per day each spent on pretrial release.

Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, called the measure an "unfunded mandate" on counties which would foot the bill to house those suspects.

During committee debate last week, some members expressed skepticism that bondsmen really needed 48 hours to assess the risk that an inmate posed.

"I think 24 hours is reasonable," said Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow.

Opponents of the measure worry that defendants kept in jail for two extra days could end up losing their jobs unnecessarily when they miss work..

Public defenders and representatives of the mental health community also oppose the bill.

On the bondsman's behalf, Black points to a publication by the Department of Insurance that estimated the bail bondsmen save the state $2 billion a year. Lawmakers, he said, should embrace the business rather than allow government-funded competition.

"If we don't return 98 percent of our guys, we'll be out of business," said Black, the bail agents' lobbyist.

"There's no reason to keep those people in jail who are not going to be able to use the resources of a bail bondsman anyway," said Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange. He has been working to modify the bill in committee but said he would prefer to see it killed.

Outside the program, bail bondsmen bear risk

SB 756 would limit the conditions under which pretrial programs could take custody of alleged offenders. The most hotly debated feature of the bill would prohibit pretrial service officials from interviewing defendants for 48 hours after their arrest.

"This is simply a bill to allow bail bondsmen to get more business and it deprives judges of information," Marcia Morey, the chief district court judge in Durham County. Without Durham's pretrial program, Morey said, she wouldn't know whether people had a job, owned a home or had risk factors that should increase their bail.

"The information pretrial release gives us is so important to make reasoned decisions," she said.

But others who work in the court system say pretrial programs aren't as effective as they could be.

"I believe we have individuals who are being put into this program who should not be. That's happening because the proper screening is not taking place," said Phil Berger Jr., the district attorney in Rockingham County and son of the state Senate leader. He cited the case of a person he recently charged with a "fairly serious sex offense," who was released to his county's pretrial program and later picked up by police for selling drugs.

The 48-hour waiting period, he said, would "allow pretrial service to more effectively screen these defendants. It also enables individuals to take advantage of the bond process."

There are 1,540 individuals with one of three different of bail-bonds-related licenses in North Carolina. They are regulated by the Department of Insurance and their businesses tend to cluster around courthouses.

Berger said he prefers to see private bondsmen take the chance somebody might not show up for a court date.

"With pretrial release, the taxpayers are essentially subsidizing and posting the bond for this guy," Berger said.

Sgt. Robin Abbott with the Pitt County Sheriffs Office says his department uses the program differently from many others. In Pitt County, he said, the pretrial release program tracks those who qualify for release but are among the most likely to re-offend. He said the program ensures that his county's already over-crowded jail doesn't become dangerously full.

"A 48 hour delay would bring real complications to us," Abbott said.

Lobbyists for and agents who work in the bail bonds industry agree. They have been pushing SB 756 saying it would be boon to taxpayers and bondsmen.

"In six years, I've paid two forfeitures," said Donny Bradley, owner of DOC Bail Bonding in Statesville, which operates in nine counties. He acknowledges that the bill would probably mean more business for bondsmen. In return for that business, he said, private bail agents do a better job of keeping track of offenders.

"There's no reform inside a jail and there's definitely no reform in pretrial release," Bradley said. His business, Bradley said, works to both make sure defendants show up on time and connects them to drug treatment or other services.

But Johnson said that pretrial programs are the only entity in the court system that regularly monitors defendants. Often, judges will order defendants into pretrial release who weren't originally identified as candidates for the program just to make sure someone keeps tabs on them until their court dates.

"We don't compete (with bondsmen) at all," he said.

Bondsmen among legislators

Opponents of the measure say they have been confounded as to why the bill has gotten so far. The Senate passed the measure last year to little fanfare. This year, a House committee has scrutinized the bill.

While the bail bonds industry's political action committee gave $28,064.80 to lawmakers last year, opponents of S 756 suggest their political influence may not entirely rely on traditional lobbying. Both Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, and Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, who is chairman or vice chairman of several House committees, are bail bondsmen.

"I'm not involved in it," Burr said of the bill, adding that he won't talk to fellow lawmakers about matters related to bail bonds.

Apodaca recused himself from voting when the measure first passed the Senate last year.

"I didn't even know it was being heard over there," he said. He added, "Right now I don't have that great of a relationship with the House," saying that his blessing on a bill might not do it much good.

Now that the measure has passed committee, it will be heard by the full House. If successful there, it would return to the Senate for approval.

36 Comments

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  • jeremyverret Jun 14, 2012

    Hey here is a novel idea for all of you liberal crybabies; don't break the law and you wont have to worry about the agenda of the bondsmen. I wonder what it would be like if people stopped whining over the rights of criminals and started caring about victims.

  • DurhamDevil Jun 14, 2012

    Taxpayers will pay for it one way or the other...

    Releasing someone who should be kept locked up costs society even more when they commit another crime while waiting for the ridiculously slow court system to handle the first crime.

  • wellnowreally Jun 14, 2012

    Well, I wanted to see first hand what this was all about...I just went and spent 3 hours at a jail lobby and you would not believe what I saw. The bondsmen are treating this bill like it is there only saving grace, and I just saw a bondsman and a pre-trial release person talking and you could not mop up the sugar coming out of the bondsman's mouth with a mop..... UNBELIEVABLE!!!!!!! They are bashing pre-trial in the bill, and kissing tail in real life......

  • 2tellitright Jun 14, 2012

    Well said 2BHonest…….Bondsman want MONEY…..PTR Services want to help ensure public safety for the inmates released into their program, decrease jail overcrowding, which also serves as safety for the detention officer’s (Also Citizens), and to save in medical treatment, which is in no way added to the $70.00 a day to house an inmate. This, in a lot of cases could be in the tens of thousands of dollars (that the tax payers would have to pay for.) Bondsmen say that they are benefiting the school system if they have to pay a bond…..So we are giving them a high five for FAILING to do their job????? HUUUMMMM… I don’t think so…

  • mypoint Jun 14, 2012

    Putting aside the fact that a person has not been proven guilty of the crime yet I am looking at taxpayer cost period. The Pre Trial program saves the taxpayers several million dollars a year across the state of NC. Who do you think will be picking up that tab with the program gone, the TAXPAYERS with higher taxes! Yes the jail is already there but it costs a lot of money to provide three square meals a day, have a doctors checkup at the point of every booking, the costs of processing, laundry, clothes,... I think what the Pre Trial program costs to screen then supervise and keep track of people on the program is a bargain.

  • 2BHonest Jun 14, 2012

    Thank you so much Bail Bondsmen for your "honest" assessment of the situation. Glad you aren't biased.
    Let's see, an offender shoplifts a $5 t-shirt. According to this article, the cost to house an inmate in the local jail is $70 per day. Assume it takes 2 weeks for the inmate to get to court. At $70 p/day, that is $980. Now, with an inmate on PreTrial Release, assume the same 2 weeks for court. $70 for day one, $1.55 for 13 days = $90.15. DO THE MATH!!!!!!!! PreTrial Release Programs typically serve inmates unable to pay a bondsman. They save taxpayer dollars. This bill is sponsored by bondsmen. PreTrial Release Coordinators and the courts do monitor offenders to ensure the appear for court. There are often conditions that mandate the offender either work or go to school while on PreTrial Release. Offenders on PTR must check in with coordinators on a routine basis. How many bondsmen do that?

  • John Sawtooth Jun 14, 2012

    Well said, bill0 - the essence is that the entire bondsmen's concept is flawed. The accused should be personally responsible for the bond, not a proxy. Bond should be of an amount that an individual can post and not the insane amounts we see today. This would mean the poorer defendant has a chance at getting that bond money back in their hands, which doesn't happen with a bondsman.

    Then the pretrial release program would be more meaningful.

  • bill0 Jun 14, 2012

    The reason bailbondsmen want to do away with this program is pretty clear. They want the easy money from posting bonds to low risk offenders.

    From a taxpayer standpoint, it really doesn't cost or save much either way. The court only gets to keep bond money if the accused doesn't show up. Otherwise, they refund 100% to the bondsman. The only person who loses money is the accused who can't afford to post their whole bond. Even if they show up to court and are found innocent, they don't get that bond money back.

  • sinenomine Jun 14, 2012

    The clue to the proper outcome here is that the legislators, who likely get contributions from or are otherwise beholden to the bondsmen, are for the bill and the chief law enforcement officer of Wake County, who happens to be responsible for running the Wake County Jail, is against it. Case closed.

  • luisescarra Jun 14, 2012

    The Pretrial release program is not what it seems to be. PTS makes it sound like they are saving money from daily encarceration $70.00 dollars a day vs $1.55, when you add tax payers money used, plus salaries, the numbers are not there. Bottom line PTS can't garantee that a arrested offender will show up to all court dates,a bail bondsman can, ultimately they are responsible for the total bond amount if the offender doesn't show. Bail bondsman have been around for many years, and have done an outstanding job, and doesn't cost the community any money, example Philadelphia did away wih bondsmans and used the no good PTS, 2 years later judges realized that the failure to appear rate was at 61% and hundreds of outstanding warrants and open cases, finally the governor is lobbying to get the bondsman's back into play, the failure to appear was 4.5% with bondsman's. Let's look at the real picture, government can't compete with the private sector, it's too costly, and it doesn't work.

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