Pretrial Justice: The True Cost of Bail Reform


Incarcerating defendants prior to trial can be an expensive undertaking. That is why pretrial release has become such a hot topic with county supervisors and legislators in recent years.

With shrinking resources and increasing jail populations, states and counties are faced with the growing costs of managing the incarceration of individuals, as well as their release.

Currently, more than $100 million is spent nationally on funding public sector pretrial release programs. These programs were created nearly half a century ago to help the indigent and those with special needs.

However, over the years, pretrial programs have grown and mutated to include individuals the programs were never designed to serve.

This has resulted in the creation of large public sector budgets that allocate additional taxpayer dollars to fund the release of defendants who can and should be required to financially obtain their own release.

It's also important to note that public sector pretrial programs have been proven repeatedly, through independent research, to be the least effective form of release. Simply put, defendants are not getting back to court.

This is hugely important because of both the financial and social cost to the public.

Traditionally, the cost of incarcerating a defendant has been calculated by the price of a jail bed. If a jail bed is freed up, the cost is also alleviated. While this may appear logical, it is not an accurate representation of the actual costs involved in pretrial release.

A study published last year by Dr. Robert Morris of the University of Texas at Dallas, examined 22,000 pretrial releases in that state's Dallas County in 2008. It examined and compared four types of pretrial release mechanisms: cash bonds, public sector pretrial release programs, attorney bonds and surety bonds (commercial bail bonds).

Commercial bail outperformed all other forms of release with the lowest failure-to-appear (FTA) rates, with only 23 percent not showing up for their court dates. The worst performer? Public sector pretrial release programs with a failure-to-appear rate of 37 percent.

According to the study, felony defendants who were not released on commercial bond were between 39 percent and 56 percent more likely to fail to appear in court.

Beyond the performance metrics, the research revealed some enlightening statistics on the costs when defendants failed-to-appear for their court dates. Based on the administrative costs incurred by the courts, each FTA in Dallas County costs $1,775.

Using that as a baseline, Dr. Morris was able to calculate the actual cost to the county of their pretrial program's performance. He determined that when defendants who were being supervised through Dallas' pretrial services program didn't show up for court, it cost the county more than $13 million in lost administrative and court costs, e.g., judges time, attorney fees and law enforcement costs. (This is based on more than 7,400 FTAs at a cost of $1,775 each.)

When utilizing commercial bail as the primary release mechanism, as compared to public sector pretrial services, the cost to Dallas County was significantly lower based on the numbers in Dr. Morris' study – an estimated $11 million in net savings to the public.

Dr. Morris' study gives a fresh perspective on the true costs associated with public sector pretrial release. Rather than focusing on saving $50-$60/day on a jail bed by releasing defendants through these publicly-funded programs, counties must also consider looking at the associated costs in reduced effectiveness of the release mechanisms.

To lose $1,775 on the back-end while trying to save $50 on the front-end is a losing proposition by any definition.

The cost of bail reform needs to be addressed not by how much funding public sector pretrial release programs require, but rather, by how much they can potentially cost counties based on their performance.

By performing these analyses, counties can better understand both the cost and performance value of using more private sector pretrial release mechanisms, such as commercial bail.

Eric Granof serves as Vice President of Corporate Communications for AIA/ExpertBail. The AIA family of companies,formed in 2003, is the nation's largest underwriter of bail and has been partnering with agents across the country for over a century. For addition information on AIA/Expert bail, please click HERE. He welcomes comments from readers.

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