Bail Bond Bill Will Create Debtor’s Prisons
Why are Republicans pushing a bill opposed almost unanimously by criminal justice professionals?
Across America, more than half a million inmates sit in jails simply because they are poor. They are there “not because they are dangerous or a threat to society or because a judge thinks they will run. It’s not even because they are guilty; they haven’t even been tried yet. They are here because they can’t make bail — sometimes as little as $50.”
So concluded National Public Radio in 2010. Little has changed since that report, but legislators in Wisconsin want to increase the number of inmates stuck in America’s version of debtors prison by adding this state to the 46 others that use the private bail bond system.
No one involved in the state’s criminal justice system favors the idea. Indeed, in 2011, when Republican legislators tried to pass a bill returning to a private bail bond system in Wisconsin, the measure was opposed by judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, sheriffs and clerks of court. Even free market champions like Gov. Scott Walker and state Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) opposed the bill.
To post bail, defendants typically must pay the bail bond company 10 percent of the bond, and will lose that money even if they show up in court. So if they can’t afford to pay the money, they simply end up in jail until their court date. By contrast, under Wisconsin’s system, created by law in 1979, defendants pay their fee to the court and it is refunded when they show up for their case.
A study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that two thirds of people in the nation’s jails are petty, nonviolent offenders who are there for only one reason, because they can’t afford their bail. The cost to taxpayers of this unnecessary imprisonment is $9 billion a year, the department has estimated.
In theory, the bail bond system is intended to assure that defendants show up for trial. In reality, companies get paid whether defendants show up or not. Failure-to-appear rates for defendants accused of felonies in Milwaukee County are 16 percent or less, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported. The no-show rate nationally is about 25 percent, according to a study by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
Perhaps the worst result of private bail bonds is how they can corrupt judges. The higher the bail set by judges, the higher the profit for bail bond companies. This creates a strong incentive for these companies to elect and influence judges who are friendly to the industry. “In other states, the exploitation of the practice has led to the convictions of judges in Louisiana and Texas,” the Cap Times has reported. “And in 2010, a bail bonds bribery case led to the first impeachment of a U.S. district judge in more than two decades.”
So the bail bond system ends up costing taxpayers more, while doing a poorer job of assuring that defendants show up for court, and creating a system where judges can be corrupted by bail bond companies. These were among the reasons that Wisconsin reformed the system 34 years ago. That’s more than three decades to test the results, and there have been no notable complaints about the new system.
Globally, it is rare to find a country that uses the commercial bail bond system. So if this system is so bad, and so uniformly opposed by criminal justice professionals, why is it once again being proposed in Wisconsin and why has Walker left the door open to signing the provision?
The bill’s major supporter is the American Bail Coalition, which represents the bail bond companies that profit greatly from the system. The American Bail Coalition spent $105,000 on lobbying in the 2011-2012 legislative session in Wisconsin and is ready to lobby heavily again. For this session it has hired prominent Capitol lobbyist Eric Petersen to augment its forces.
The coalition also has support from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a non-profit with heavy corporate funding (including by the Koch brothers), not to mention funding by Milwaukee’s conservative Bradley Foundation. ALEC courts state legislators (including some 2,000 lawmakers, mostly Republicans) and pushes a “free market” agenda, even writing model bills that legislators can then introduce.
The American Bail Coalition’s decision to join ALEC in 1993 “pushed the ABC agenda down the road to fulfillment of its objectives,” a newsletter by the coalition reports. “ABC policy goals meshed neatly with those of ALEC,” the report added, and ABC executive director Dennis Bartlett serves today as a member of the Private Sector Committee of ALEC.
ALEC created a model bail bond bill which was the basis for the one introduced in 2011 by Wisconsin Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), who had attended ALEC conferences in the past. Now the Assembly Speaker, Vos is once again championing the bill.
This is at least the third time an ALEC-connected legislator has pushed to bring commercial bail-bonds back to Wisconsin. “In 2003, the effort was led by Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford), a longtime ALEC alum and former co-chair of the ALEC “Criminal Justice Task Force,” which was also co-chaired by representatives of the American Bail Coalition,” as Brendan Fischer of the Center for Media and Democracy has written.
In 2011, Walker vetoed the bill, saying he didn’t think there had been enough time “to properly evaluate the proposal and to plan for appropriate regulation of this industry.” But this time the measure could be included as part of the budget bill, which could ease its passage, and Walker hasn’t signaled where he stands on the issue. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson told the Journal Sentinel that the governor would “evaluate the budget in its entirety when it comes to his desk.”
The return of commercial bail bonds, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has stated, “will primarily benefit out-of-state interests, the large bail-bond corporations” motivated “purely by financial interests” at the expense of public safety.
Chisholm said that bail bond agents often set up payment plans with high interest rates that “resemble the predatory practices of the cash loan industry” and trap low-income individuals into a cycle of debt.
If the bill passes it will increase the taxpayers costs for imprisonment, says Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee), a former judge who championed the reform bill of 1979. “Wisconsin saw a 5-6 percent decrease in its jail population” after the private bail-bond system was banned in 1979, he told the media, “and will likely see a 5-6 percent increase if the practice comes back.”
The old bail bonding business was especially lucrative during the civil rights era, Kessler has said: “You arrest 200 people in one night protesting for open housing, and you set bail of $500 each, which requires a premium of $50 each, you end up having $10,000 in premium right there.”
A private bail bond system undercuts the authority of judges, Milwaukee County Chief Judge Jeff Kremers told the Journal Sentinel: “Now the decision is no longer up to a judge, it’s up to some insurance type person who’s thinking, ‘Can I make money on this release?’” That system, he added, “doesn’t tell us anything about how dangerous (defendants) are. It just tells us how much money they have or their family has.”