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Pretrial services

Interesting story about one of the many ways the county’s budget shortfall is manifesting itself.

With the blessing of the county attorney’s office, Harris County Pretrial Services has stopped supervising inmates let out of jail on bail, forcing bail bondsmen to more closely monitor their clients and sending judges scrambling to find someone to keep an eye on those awaiting trial.

The change, which began in mid-October, has judges trying to find someone to oversee drug testing, as well as ensure, for example, that DUI defendants have ignition interlocks installed in their automobiles, that drug offenders seek treatment, offenders observe curfews or that the mentally ill get court-ordered services.

Harris County Pretrial Services continues to supervise people out on personal bonds, granted to those unlikely to flee or offend again in exchange for a pledge to show up for court.

However, in the weeks since Pretrial Services stopped checking on defendants freed through bail bonds, the county’s probation department and the bondsmen themselves have taken over some of the monitoring while judges try to find a long-term solution.

[…]

Judges had for years been giving Pretrial Services more and more accused felons to monitor. Fifteen years ago, Pretrial Services supervised only 239 felony defendants released on bail, compared with 1,461 released on personal bonds.

By last year, Pretrial was monitoring 2,989 accused felons who purchased their pretrial release through bail bondsmen and only 620 out on personal bond.

More than a fifth of Pretrial Services’ $7.4 million annual budget is spent monitoring clients of bail bondsmen, according to a county report.

Budget concerns, in part, led to Pretrial Services’ change of heart.

Like other county departments, the agency had been under a hiring freeze for the last year and has had essentially the same staffing for at least 15 years but continued to take on bail bond defendants “very, very reluctantly,” state District Judge Mike Anderson said.

Last month, the county’s budget office asked all county departments to prepare for 10 percent budget cuts in the coming year.

The large increase in Pretrial Services’ monitoring caseload began right after the Republican sweep of the Harris County judiciary in 1994. One of the themes of their coordinated campaign that year was attacking the incumbent Democratic judges for releasing too many inmates on personal bonds. The result has been the overcrowded jails that cost the county millions every year, which the Republican judges that helped cause the problem vowed to help clean up in their ads this year. I’m still waiting to see any significant progress on that front.

One more thing:

While defendants released on personal bond failed to show for court appearances 5.6 percent of the time last year, those bailed out by bondsmen failed to appear only 2.9 percent of the time, according to Pretrial Services’ most recent annual report.

I note that paragraph because there was a recent article in the Statesman about the use of personal bonds, in particular one judge’s much more frequent use of them than others’, and it gave a number for Travis County:

Of all the defendants released on personal bond by Travis County judges in financial year 2009 — including those that Pretrial Services recommended — 19 percent failed to show up for court, and 8 percent were arrested for another crime.

Unfortunately, it didn’t say what percentage of defendants released on bail did not show up for their court dates. Regardless, it seems clear that Harris County could easily be a lot more aggressive in the use of personal bonds with relatively little associated risk, and in doing so would likely save a fair amount of money. This would be a metric to watch if you want to test the veracity of those Republican judges’ campaign ads.

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