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Battle of the Bonds

On a Sunday afternoon this past May, 34-year-old Elizabeth Peavy drove to a convenience store on Bissonnet in southwest Houston. After purchasing some gasoline and a snack, Peavy got back into her rented red Thunderbird. But before she could start the car and drive away, a young man with a gun shot her four times, killing her. He pulled her body out of the front seat and stole the car.

Two days after the murder, Houston police arrested 17-year-old Anthony Jerome Dixon for the crime. It was not his first encounter with the law; the previous November, Dixon had been arrested on a burglary charge. He was released from jail shortly thereafter on a personal recognizance bond -- which means, in effect, that he was let out on the honor system. He was required to put up no bond money.

Although it was a judge who decided that Dixon should be freed, the fact that it was the Harris County Pretrial Services Agency that provided the judge the information that led to the release has re-ignited a debate over the agency's role in putting accused criminals back on the streets. Last month, in response to the Peavy case, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative Washington think-tank, ran full-page ads in the Houston Chronicle exclaiming, "Today an Accused Criminal Walking the Streets Will Commit a Crime. And You Paid for Their Freedom." The ads coincided with a telephone and letter-writing campaign by local bail bondsmen to various Harris County officials.

The fact that commercial bail bondsmen are behind much of the attack against the PSA has led some to charge that the bondsmen are really more concerned about their pocketbooks -- anyone who gets a PR bond, after all, doesn't need a bondsman's services -- than public safety.

But veteran bondsman Gerald Monks, who serves on the ALEC's criminal justice task force, brushes away the notion that he's just fighting to keep the government out of his business. In his mind, he's a freedom fighter protecting traditional family values and public safety.

"People say the poor people are in jail," Monks says in response to the argument that the PSA helps those who can't afford commercial bondsmen. "And they're right, but they're wrong in this respect: you've got to differentiate between the indigent and the criminally indigent. A criminal indigent is a person who has lied, robbed, stolen, mistreated, raped. Stolen from his mother, father, sister, cousin, uncle, brother, friends, relatives, employers, employees to the extent that when they need aid to get themselves out of jail, they will not come to their aid. And they think they should stay in jail. It's the best natural technique of making sure that the right people stay in jail."

The judge who established the PSA didn't exactly see it that way. The Harris County Pretrial Services Agency was created in 1975 when Judge Carl Bue ordered Harris County to alleviate jail overcrowding. The agency's stated purpose was to release from jail people who weren't serious flight risks or who would be free if it weren't for their inability to post commercial bonds. In his order, Bue foresaw the inevitable clash between the agency and private-sector bondsmen.

"The bondsmen see the agency as a potential economic threat to their 'market,' " wrote Bue. He added, "Under no circumstances are [Harris County officials] to permit [Pretrial Services Agency] efforts to be superseded at the behest or by the actions of professional bail bondsmen."

That order, however, hasn't kept bondsmen and their allies from sniping away at the agency. The world would be a much better and safer place, Monks believes, if it weren't for the Pretrial Services Agency -- which he prefers to call the Pretrial "Release" Agency. Monks contends that the PSA promotes irresponsibility and makes it more likely that defendants will fail to show up for their court dates.

"So, the defendant gets out," says Monks. "And their father comes up and says they've got to straighten out and get their legal situation taken care of. And they say, 'Go to hell, Dad. I don't need you. Big Brother is taking care of me.' Pretrial eliminates the ties to the family. And because of that approach they develop into criminals because they think they can do it again and again."

State Representative Talmadge Heflin agrees. "First and foremost is the fact that in this process there is no real incentive for [the defendant] to return to court," says Heflin. The congressman believes that judges overuse pretrial release as a way to help avoid jail overcrowding, and he has noted that he'd support legislation to abolish the PSA -- or at least to hold it and its clients more accountable.

But in the opinion of some judges, the bail bondsmen's arguments don't have much to back them up. "I don't have a hell of a lot of confidence in their statistics, their performance and their publicity," says Harris County Administrative Judge Miron Love. Love believes that the clash between bondsmen and the PSA is purely economic. "There are more bondsmen in Harris County than there are in most states in the union. They are interested in protecting their turf."

 

The Harris County PSA has a budget of just under $3.2 million and employs just over 100 people to interview defendants in the county court system. Each interview takes approximately 15 minutes; during that time a defendant is asked about his occupation, finances, marital status and address, and he's asked for references as well. A computerized criminal background check is run, and the defendant receives a "score" based on factors such as his age, criminal history and whether he has a car, telephone, job or family.

This information is passed on to a judge, who determines whether the defendant is eligible for bond and, if so, for what kind and how much. The PSA makes no recommendations about bonds. But the office does sometimes suggest that a defendant is a candidate for a halfway house or drug treatment program.

During 1992-93, according to figures released by the agency, 112,950 people were released from jail in Harris County on some form of bond. Just over 13 percent got out on personal recognizance bonds; almost 69 percent went through bail bondsmen.

For the past decade, the Harris County PSA has been headed by Charles Noble, a buttoned-down kind of guy who enjoys answering questions by quickly pulling up statistics on his computer or pointing to data in his voluminous stacks of reference materials. Noble believes that the recent attack on his office has come because his staff has handled 38 percent more cases so far this year than it had by this time last year.

"The [county] judiciary has gained an unqualified confidence in the services we provide," says Noble. "So the judges have begun to release a lot more people on personal recognizance than they have in the past. So since our releases are higher, that's taking a pretty big bite out of the bail insurance companies."

According to Noble, judges are relying more heavily on his office because of the agency's improved Failure To Appear rate -- the percentage of times a defendant fails to show up for a court date. In a 1990 report funded by the Department of Justice, the national FTA rate on all forms of bail was close to 25 percent. But in Harris County, the same study showed that the FTA rate for personal recognizance bonds was 11 percent, and for commercial bonds, 12 percent. (The PSA doesn't keep track of how many people released on bond, PR or otherwise, commit crimes while awaiting trial.)

However, since the numbers were crunched by the Pretrial Services Resource Center, which advocates the use of PR bonds, bail bondsman Monks thinks they're suspect. And even if the numbers are accurate, in Monks' opinion, bail bondsmen do a better job than the PSA because they have to deal with defendants who are higher risks. "[PSA] gets all their information about the defendant first," he says. "Our loss rate should be three times what theirs is, but it's not."

In a recent letter to the Harris County Commissioners Court, Monks outlines his outrage about the death of Elizabeth Peavy. In the letter, Monks suggests that Peavy might be alive today if not for the Harris County Pretrial Services Agency.

"I guarantee you this crime would not have happened if the defendant had been controlled by a bail agent," wrote Monks. "Why? Because bail agents make sure that a relative, or someone, is in control of the defendant."

Unfortunately for Monks -- not to mention three people wounded during a shooting spree -- apparently no one was in control of a man for whom Monks posted bond a little over six years ago. On February 24, 1988, Steven Kurt Baughman was arrested on an assault charge. Approximately 12 hours later, Monks filed a $500 bond and Baughman, who had three prior arrests and convictions for theft, forgery and cocaine possession, was released. Eight hours after his release, Baughman attempted to assault one person and ended up shooting three others, including the police chief of the University of Houston. Baughman was charged with attempted capital murder of a peace officer and eventually was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Despite the escalation of their war against the Pretrial Services Agency, the bondsmen appear to have gained little ground. Although they have enlisted the support of a handful of conservative state legislators, apparently the bondsmen have also irritated more than a few members of the Harris County judiciary. Citing the recent attacks on the agency, Judge Jim Barr, in a letter co-signed by Judge Miron Love, earlier this month asked the State Justice Institute in Alexandria, Virginia for a grant to fund an independent study of the performance of the PSA in hopes of quelling the criticism.

 

Meanwhile, Sam Houston State University professor Charles Friel, who has been providing Harris County with forecasts of the local jail population since 1983, warns against accepting the arguments of either side at face value. Although some county officials, including Charles Noble, deny that judges use the PSA as a safety valve to deal with overcrowding, Friel says that's indeed the case -- and he sees nothing wrong with it.

Friel also says that while Harris County is the current battleground for the war between bail bondsmen and the PSA, this is only the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle across the country. Friel contends that the real issue is not pretrial release but, rather, jail overcrowding. "In other communities at other times you may find a tacit agreement [between bondsmen and the PSA] to get along," says Friel. "But with the pressure on jail overcrowding and pressure for any and all mechanisms that can relieve jail overcrowding, it gets this issue to a head. Because this problem of overcrowding is all over the country. If you did away with Pretrial Services altogether and simply let bail bonds be the only mechanism for pretrial release, that isn't going to make the problem go away.


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