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Bail Burden Keeps U.S. Jails Stuffed With Inmates

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Bail Burden Keeps U.S. Jails Stuffed With Inmates

Bail Burden Keeps U.S. Jails Stuffed With Inmates

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Madeleine Brand in California.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block in Washington.

More than half a million inmates are sitting in U.S. jails right now, not necessarily because they're dangerous, not because a judge thinks they're flight risks, not even because they're guilty - they haven't even been tried yet. They're sitting in jail for a basic financial reason: They can't make bail, sometimes as little as $50. Some will wait behind bars for as along as a year before their cases may get to court.

BRAND: Most of these inmates are non-violent men and women charged with small crimes. This year alone, housing them will cost taxpayers $9 billion.

Today, we begin a three-part series examining bail in the U.S. NPR's Laura Sullivan has been exploring the powerful bail industry and she's found that it hurts defendants, their victims and taxpayers. Today's story looks at bail through the lens of one city: Lubbock, Texas. And it begins with one inmate Laura Sullivan first met this past June.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Leslie Chew grew up next to his father on the oil rigs of southern Texas. He still can't read or write. He's a handyman, often finding a place to sleep in the back of his old station wagon, but he gets by; that is, until one night last December when the station wagon got cold and he changed the course of his life.

Mr. LESLIE CHEW: Well, I stole some blankets to try to stay warm.

SULLIVAN: Where did you steal them from?

Mr. CHEW: And I stole them at United, inside of a grocery store. I walked in, got them and turned around and walked right back out of the store. And then he said, excuse me, sir. Come here. So when I turned around to come back, he said, planning to pay for these? I said, no, sir. I don't have no money. Then that's when he arrested me right then.

SULLIVAN: He's been here in a white concrete room at the Lubbock County jail ever since, for 185 days, more than six months altogether. He hasnt been convicted of his crime. He hasnt even been tried yet. He's here because he can't pay his bail. He doesnt have the $3,500 cash deposit he would need to leave with the court, nor does he have the $350 fee he would need to pay a bail bondsman to do it for him. If he did, he could stand up right now and walk out the door.

Is that a lot of money?

Mr. CHEW: To me it is. Like a million dollars to me.

SULLIVAN: When Leslie Chew headed down the grocery aisle and put four $30 blankets under his arm, he set in motion a process almost unique to the United States, a process that rewards the wealthy and punishes the poor, and NPR has found exists almost solely to protect the interests of a powerful bail bonding lobby.

The result is that people with money get out. They go back to their jobs, their families, pay their bills, fight their cases, and according to national studies, face far fewer consequences for their crimes. People without money stay in jail and are left to take whatever offer prosecutors feel like giving them.

Leslie Chew is still waiting for the offer. He's ready to plead guilty and accept his punishment, but court cases take time and prosecutors have only come to visit him only once. Through lunch today, it has cost $7,068 to house, clothe and feed Leslie Chew.

Mr. CHEW: Now, that's a lot of money. That's really too much money, really.

SULLIVAN: Nationwide, taxpayers spent $9 billion last year on people who have been granted bail but can't come up with the money to pay it. And each year that number increases as the nation's jails overflow with petty offenders counties have no room to house and budgets they can no longer afford.

Chew is sitting at a metal table in the middle of the room. The calluses on his hands are leaving marks on the painted steel. He says he's worried that his customers - the people who hire him to fix things, move things and pick things up - are turning to someone else. And he's worried about his car.

Mr. CHEW: It's a '87 station wagon Saturn. It's white with (unintelligible). I was going to get a regular car, but I figured a station wagon would be better, because if I ever get in a bind, I can lay down in the back seat, I have a place to sleep.

SULLIVAN: I can feel Chew's feet begin to tap under the table.

Mr. CHEW: If I lose that car, that's it. I don't know what I would do, 'cause that's how I get around.

SULLIVAN: Chew doesn't know it now, as he waits at this table waiting for lunch, but he's going to lose his customers. And he's going to lose his car. And across this barren room of orange jumpsuits, most of Chew's fellow inmates aren't going to fare much better.

Mr. DOUG CURRINGTON: This here is my bunk, right here.

SULLIVAN: Doug Currington, like Leslie Chew, tried to steal something: a television from Wal-Mart at 2:00 in the morning while high on meth. Currington's time in jail so far: 75 days. Total cost to taxpayers: $2,850. Standing between him and the door: 150 bucks.

Sitting in here, Currington has lost his apartment and his job. His truck has been repossessed, and he has no money to pay child support. And perhaps even more importantly, when it comes to getting punished, he doesn't have the opportunity to show the court he's sorry.

Mr. CURRINGTON: If I can get out, I can go to rehab, I can get my job back, I can work, and I can - when I go to court, my lawyer has something to work with: This guy has been clean. He's voluntarily went to rehab. He hasn't committed another crime. He's had the same job. He's paying his child support. They're not going to throw you back in jail.

SULLIVAN: Currington's gut feeling about his situation is backed up by national statistics: Defendants who make bail do less time. Several defense lawyers in Lubbock told me that if Currington could get out, go to rehab, pay Wal-Mart for their trouble, he would likely get probation. Prosecutors right now are offering him five years in prison.

Mr. CURRINGTON: It's stressful knowing that your life is in over $150, could be swayed one way or another. You know, it's a matter of being free in two hours, if I had $150, to being free in three or four years down the road when I make parole on a 10-year sentence.

SULLIVAN: As I make my way through the jail, everyone seems to have a story like this: A daunting offer from prosecutors, a bail so small most people would just need to get to the ATM. In here, most inmates seem to think they're just hours away from someone - a friend, a relative, maybe a boss - coming to bail them out, like 34-year-old barber Raymond Howard.

Mr. RAYMOND HOWARD: Right now, my family is working on coming up with the bond for me to get out. So I'm praying, you know, not too much longer. Not too much longer.

SULLIVAN: Howard needs $500. He's been here for more than four months so far after he forged a check against a company. Like Doug Currington and Leslie Chew, Raymond Howard has no history of violence and has always shown up for court. That's why he was granted bail. And yet the city of Lubbock has already spent $5,054 to house him.

Lawyers say Howard would likely get time served and probation if he was on the outside. But in here, he has little bargaining power and nothing to show for himself. Prosecutors are offering Howard a sentence so long he catches his breath as he said it.

Mr. HOWARD: They started with seven. Seven years.

SULLIVAN: With three young boys at home, it's almost more than he can bear.

Mr. HOWARD: I love my boys to death. You know, thats pretty much all I have, you know?

SULLIVAN: But despite all his hoping, Raymond Howard's family isn't coming with the $500. In fact, he isn't going to see his three young boys for a very long time.

I took a walk through the jail with Lubbock's Sheriff David Gutierrez, who has since been promoted to the state parole board. In here, it's easy to see the impact of housing all these men.

Sheriff DAVID GUTIERREZ (Lubbock, Texas): We're out of room, completely out of room. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: There are corridors where there used to be windows, cells where there used to be closets.

Sheriff GUTIERREZ: It really needs to be closed. I think you'll see that it's not quite adequate. When you try to bring in today's technology and standards into a 1931 building, it's rather challenging.

SULLIVAN: It wasn't always like this. Twenty years ago, nationally and in Lubbock, most defendants were released on their own recognizance, trusted to show back up. Now most defendants are given bail and most have to pay a bail bondsman to afford it. Considering that the vast majority of non-violent offenders released on their own recognizance have always shown up for trial, it seems like an easy solution for Lubbock. But that is not the solution Lubbock has chosen.

County officials have instead decided to spend $110 million on a brand-new mega jail. And Lubbock is not alone. At least 10 counties every year consider building new jails to ease a near-epidemic of jail overcrowding, according to industry experts.

There is one other solution. It's a county-funded program called pretrial release. Non-violent inmates are released under supervision, often with ankle bracelets, drug testing, or counseling. It costs only a couple dollars a day, compared with the national average of $60 a day in jail.

Lubbock's Chief Deputy Kelly Rowe says pretrial release is an important option and it operates out of the jail's intake area. So we head down there.

Chief Deputy KELLY ROWE (Lubbock, Texas): These are in-bound right here: the ones you sitting down, the ones on the phone, everything have just come in.

SULLIVAN: But when we walk over to the pretrial desk, it's empty - no papers, no pens.

Rowe leaves to inquire. In front of me, two dozen inmates are scattered near a line of pay phones. On the wall is a large sign with the number of every bail bond company in town, in bold letters. There's no phone number for the pretrial release office. Rowe returns and says no one staffed the desk for four, five months.

So where are they?

Chief Deputy�ROWE: It's like anything else we do. I mean, we've got, you know, a thousand functions that we oversee and watch and, you know, are doing and, you know, it stalled and the people responsible for that staff reassigned them or said, here, we want you doing this other job duty.

SULLIVAN: That's not exactly how Lubbock's pretrial officials describe what happened.

Mr.�STEVE HENDERSON: Follow the money. Usually whenever you've got questions of money, you follow the money and they'll help tell you the reasons why some things operate.

SULLIVAN: Steve Henderson runs Lubbock's parole and pretrial release program a block away from the jail, in a small, dark office. He says his shoestring budget can't afford an officer at the jail. He can't even afford to accept collect calls from inmates looking for pretrial help, and that, he says, is exactly how the bail bondsmen want it.

Mr.�HENDERSON: Yeah, they make money and they contribute their influence. I would do more if we had the funding to do more.

SULLIVAN: It's not that Lubbock's bondsmen even want Henderson's clients. Most of them can't afford a bondsman's fees. But Henderson says the bondsmen lobby to keep his program as small and unproductive as possible so no paying customers slip through, even if that means thousands of inmates like Raymond Howard and Leslie Chew wait in jail at taxpayer expense because they never find the money to become paying customers.

Mr.�HENDERSON: The bonding companies make a living. And so that's just the nature of Texas and Lubbock.

SULLIVAN: But it's not just Texas and Lubbock. A review of national lobbying efforts show pretrial release programs across the country are increasingly locked in a losing battle with bonding companies trying to either limit their programs or shut them down entirely.

As Henderson walks me back to his office's lobby, he stops and reads the sign above the door. It says: protecting our community by changing lives.

Mr.�HENDERSON: Jail doesn't do anybody any good. The only thing that jail is good for is to keep the dangerous people away from the people in the community who don't pose a risk.

SULLIVAN: But that is not who is in the nation's jails. Two-thirds of the people in the nation's jails are nonviolent offenders who are there for only one reason: They can't afford their bail.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: That's NPR's Laura Sullivan. Her story continues in a moment. We'll hear about the business of bail bonds and how its close ties to politicians keep inmates in jail and push exorbitant costs onto taxpayers.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This is NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand. We return now to our examination of bail and the devastating impact it can have on defendants and taxpayers. NPR's Laura Sullivan continues the story from Lubbock, Texas.

SULLIVAN: Across the street from the Lubbock jail is a row of one-storey offices with painted ads: Student discounts. Lubbock's number one bonds. Inside one of them, Lubbock Bail Bond, three young women work the phones and visitors.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi, there. Can I help you?

SULLIVAN: This is one of the biggest bonding shops in town. Here's how it works: You're arrested. A judge gives you a $5,000 bail. You don't have $5,000, so you pay Lubbock Bail a nonrefundable fee, at least 10 percent, probably about $500.

Mr.�KEN HERZOG (Office Manager, Lubbock Bail Bond): We put up the total amount, they pay us a premium, and as long as they show up for court, well, we make money.

SULLIVAN: Office manager Ken Herzog says there's about 13 companies for a rather small population of 250,000. He says it's cutthroat: There's no place for even a modest pretrial release program.

Mr.�HERZOG: I've had a little run-in with the pretrial people over here because I was going to make a bond and they went back in and interviewed the person, and they hadn't been in jail very long.

I went and took my bond over there to the jail. They said, well, pretrial's getting them. I said: Oh, no, they ain't. So I went to the judge that signed the motion for pretrial and I told her what was up. And I said they have no business even talking to this person. They pulled their bond, and I got the person out of jail.

SULLIVAN: I ask him if he was talking about Steve Henderson from the pretrial release office.

Mr.�HERZOG: I told him, I says, I do this for a living. I says, you don't do that. And I says, I'll work with you any way I can, but you're not going to get my business. And he backed off.

SULLIVAN: It's unlikely he had much choice. Steve Henderson works for county officials, and county officials are elected. Herzog anticipates my question before I ask it.

Mr.�HERZOG: We take care of the ones who take care of us. We don't want to pay anybody off, per se. We just want to support the people that are trying to help our business.

SULLIVAN: According to Lubbock campaign records, bondsmen make frequent donations to elected officials. Indigent jail inmates do not. We'll talk more about this tomorrow.

The disparity, though, has served the bondsmen well. Here's an example. Bondsmen's main job: bring defendants back to court if they fail to show up. But it turns out most bondsmen aren't doing this job.

Statistically, most bail jumpers are not caught by bondsmen or their bounty hunters. They're caught by sheriff's deputies. Listen to Beni Hemmeline from the Lubbock's district attorney's office.

Ms.�BENI HEMMELINE (District Attorney's Office; Lubbock, Texas): More often than not, the defendants are rearrested on a warrant that's issued after they fail to appear.

SULLIVAN: If the runners are more often than not hauled back in by the sheriff or the police department, how has the bond company provided any service at all?

Ms.�HEMMELINE: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms.�HEMMELINE: You know, it may be that either they can't find them. Or, you know, there's no way - they can't camp at their door 24 hours a day. So they do the best that they can, I think.

SULLIVAN: And here's the other thing. If a defendant does run, the bondsman is supposed to pay up, but that doesn't happen either. Hemmeline says Lubbock usually settles for a far lower amount. In fact, according to the county treasurer, bondsmen usually only pay five percent of the bond when a client runs.

Consider that math for a minute. The bondsmen charge clients at least 10 percent. But if the client runs, they only have to pay the county five.

Are you concerned that it's an awfully good deal for the bail bondsman and maybe not such a good deal for the county?

Ms.�HEMMELINE: We don't want to put the bond companies out of business. Bond companies serve an important purpose.

SULLIVAN: NPR found bondsmen getting similar breaks in other states. In California, bondsmen owe counties $150 million; in New Jersey, a quarter of a million; in Erie, Pennsylvania, for a time, officials simply stopped collecting money.

It is possible to skip the commercial bail bonding business entirely by just paying cash. But it takes hours longer to post a cash bail, and many people don't even know that it's an option, like Sandy Ramirez, who came to Lubbock Bail Bond for her 18-year-old son.

Did you think about paying the full 750 to the court yourself and getting it back when he shows up for trial? You never heard about that?

Ms.�SANDY RAMIREZ: No, I didn't know that. That's awful not to know that.

SULLIVAN: I walked back over to the jail to find out just how many others were like Sandy Ramirez. Deputy Jerry Dossey was manning the bail window.

Deputy JERRY DOSSEY (Lubbock, Texas): How often do they put up a cash bond? Maybe two or three a month.

SULLIVAN: Two or three a month in a place taking 60 commercial bail bonds a day.

Deputy DOSSEY: Sometimes it's hard to scrape up the cash money when you got a family to feed and everything else.

SULLIVAN: Plus, most judges aren't setting bail at what you can afford to pay. They're setting bail 10 times higher than what you can afford to pay a bail bondsman. In the back of the room, I see Leslie Chew, the inmate who needs $350 for stealing blankets. He's mopping the floor. He waves.

Later, I take a ride out to the new jail with Sheriff Gutierrez.

Sheriff Gutierrez: This whole area here is larger than our old jail.

SULLIVAN: The main corridor is almost three football fields long.

Do you ever wonder if you had more people that you could let out on low bail or if you could let people out more on their personal recognizance, then maybe you wouldn't need this facility?

Sheriff GUTIERREZ: The last thing I want to do is continue to keep building beds. I think there should be some opportunities to be able to release them and put them back into society, allow them to do - go to classes or go back to work and report for trial when the trial date comes.

SULLIVAN: But as we're about to leave, Sheriff Gutierrez, who has been elected in three landslide victories over the past 11 years, pauses. And he puts his finger on the risk for any politician to suggest such an alternative even if it means taxpayers save money, even if it means victims will get restitution, even if it means the only reason he can fill this new jail is because the people filling it are poor. He still says it.

Sheriff GUTIERREZ: I don't want you to think that I'm soft on crime. I'm not soft on crime.

SULLIVAN: And the result of that for defendants is devastating.

Six months later and two hours north of Lubbock, the barbed wired of Formby State Prison rises from the cotton fields. In an empty visiting room, Raymond Howard, one of the inmates from the Lubbock jail, is sitting next to the prison's Coke machine.

So here you are.

Mr.�HOWARD: Here I am.

SULLIVAN: His family was never able to come up with his $500 bail for forging a check. His wife and three sons were barely making it themselves.

Mr.�HOWARD: I have a three-year sentence. My heart kind of dropped.

SULLIVAN: If he had made bail, defense attorneys say he would likely have gotten probation. But inside, he had nothing to show he could be trusted with a chance.

Mr.�HOWARD: It was something that I did. You know, it was my mistake, it was my fault. But I didn't have the opportunity to show them. I apologize for what I've done but didn't had a chance. And this is where you wind up.

SULLIVAN: Leslie Chew, the inmate who stole the blankets, didn't walk out of the Lubbock jail until eight months after he arrived, costing taxpayers $9,120. Prosecutors eventually gave him time served for his theft. But there was a condition: He had to plead guilty to a felony.

When he left, he found out his station wagon had been repossessed. Without a place to sleep, he wound up at a homeless shelter. A few months ago, he almost got a job as a maintenance man, but when the owners saw a felony conviction, they pulled the offer.

In October, he walked back into the Lubbock jail and asked the night officer if he could have his old job back, cleaning the jail's floors. But those jobs are reserved for the half a million people in this country who can't make bail. Nobody's seen Leslie Chew since. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

BRAND: And Laura's series on bail continues tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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