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."

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Steve McVicker