EXCLUSIVE: Inside The Money Bail Industry’s Fight To Stay Afloat Amid Reform
Most lawmakers agree that the nation’s bail process needs to be reformed, but the question of what those reforms should look like remains a point of bitter contest.
With critics of the current bail system labeling money bail as unjust and exploitative, the money bail industry has a truly existential stake in the progression of reforms. Opponents of money bail at the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI) argue the nation should follow the example of states like New Jersey, which abolished the practice almost completely in 2017 and implemented a risk assessment tool to release defendants without payment instead. But Palmetto Surety, a South Carolina-based bail bond company, argues that reforms in New Jersey and elsewhere have been too radical and were enacted too quickly.
New Jersey implemented its bail reforms at the outset of 2017, employing a risk assessment tool to determine the likelihood of a defendant re-offending or skipping trial upon release. Those deemed too dangerous are detained, but a large number are released at no charge with varying levels of security.
Don Mescia of United Bail of America, which represents the legal interests of Palmetto agents, told The Daily Caller News Foundation he agrees with the sentiment that defendants who are poor or incompetent shouldn’t be kept in jail simply because they can’t afford bail. But he claims that because the state has rushed the process, New Jersey’s risk assessment lets out far more defendants than just those who are poor, incompetent, or low-level offenders.
“There needs to be more of a time frame so courts can determine whether someone is actually indigent or incompetent,” Mescia said. “People aren’t being told the full truth, many of these low-level offenders are repeat offenders, and we’d like judges to be able to take the time to ensure they’re not a flight risk.”
Many state police agree with the sentiment. Five months into 2017, the risk assessment released Douglas Baudriz-Diaz, an illegal immigrant arrested for burglary. He then robbed another home and was arrested while in the process of robbing a third. Police argued he should never have left jail.
“With the old bail guidelines, he would have been held in the [corrections center] with a bail between $10,000-$50,000 due to the degree of his charges,” the South Plainfield Police Department wrote in a statement, going on to call the release “unfortunate.”
New Jersey’s assessment tool doesn’t take into account a defendant’s race, ethnicity, or immigration status, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“There should be bail reform, but not everyone should be entitled to an algorithm release,” Mescia said. “Many of these have committed heinous crimes like drug and gun offenses.”
PJI CEO Cherise Fanno Burdeen disagrees, arguing that current bail practices overly discriminate against minorities and that the clear path to change is abolishing money bail.
“The current bail system in America is broken,” she told TheDCNF. “New Jersey’s jails were filled with people of color with low bond amounts at $500 and $100. The new system ensures equality by paring down the number of things courts should consider when deciding whether they should be released without trial.”
While Palmetto argues it is beneficial for judges to be given more leeway to tailor bails to defendants, Burdeen is critical of money bail advocates as a rule.
“Those bondsmen are just fighting to delay the progress,” Burdeen said in reference to New Jersey bond companies. “As of January first they lost all of their business, so I would expect them to fight against it.”
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