MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Now we conclude a three-part series on problems with the American bail system. More than half the people sitting in jail right now are there because they are poor. They can't make bail. This year, housing and feeding them while they wait trial will cost taxpayers $9 billion.
There's another option, county-run programs called pretrial release. Defendants get out of jail with ankle bracelets for monitoring for as low as two tax dollars a day. It's a solution Broward County, Florida turned to three years ago. Almost immediately, the county's overcrowded jail became a spacious money-saver. And yet, two years later, Broward's commissioners voted to gut the program.
NPR's Laura Sullivan explores why and she finds a powerful lobby dismantling pretrial programs nationwide.
LAURA SULLIVAN: The process of bail in Broward County begins in the early morning hours on Judge John Hurley's desk.
Judge JOHN HURLEY (Broward County, Florida): I'm looking at the arrest reports from last night in a stack about eight inches high, and I just flip through them.
SULLIVAN: The night's lawlessness is laid out before him.
Judge HURLEY: Eighty percent of it I'll fly through: trespassing, sleeping in the park, drinking in public, didn't pay a traffic ticket. My job is to make sure that I keep the dangerous people in and let the people who are not dangerous out.
SULLIVAN: To do that, he's got basically three choices. He can release defendants on their own recognizance, trust them to show up for court. Or he can grant them bail. Many won't be able to afford the bail Hurley sets, so they'll pay a bail bondsman a nonrefundable fee to do it for them.
And then there's the third option: pretrial release, a county-funded program letting people out of jail with ankle bracelets monitoring or even drug testing. It used to be one of Hurley's favorite options. But these days he doesn't get to use it very often. The program, he says, has been too cut back to handle many defendants.
Judge HURLEY: The bondsmen think the pretrial is stealing their business. But I don't want to get into the mix. I don't want to get into the political aspect of this.
SULLIVAN: Just how bail bonding became political in Broward has sent shockwaves through pretrial programs across the country. Industry experts say powerful bail lobbying groups have begun using Broward as a roadmap of how to squash similar programs elsewhere, even though public records show the programs have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.
Here in Broward, the once thriving pretrial release program now operates out of barren offices across from a courthouse. Officers like Bret Gibson monitor their few clients by tracking them on computers.
Officer BRET GIBSON (Broward County, Florida): It immediately shows me what's going on with this client.
SULLIVAN: Some offenders just have to call in. Some wear ankle bracelets. Others use GPS tracking, like the woman Gibson is following on his screen.
Ofc. GIBSON: They came home four minutes late. They were supposed to be home at 2:30. They came home at 2:34.
SULLIVAN: The woman texts that she is now in the house, which a circle on a map is confirming is, in fact, true. For this woman, and for many others like her charge with petty offenses, this program is the difference between spending months in jail waiting for a court date and being able to save her job, pay her bills, keep her home and see her family.
For the county, this program or at least the way it used to be means something else: saving a lot of money. Pretrial costs about a couple dollars day per inmate. Jail costs $115.
Kristina Gulick runs the program.
Ms. KRISTINA GULICK (Community Control Director, Broward County): It costs a quarter of every county tax dollar to run our jail system in Broward County and it's the largest single expense to any county taxpayer.
SULLIVAN: But it wasn't just the money. Three years ago, the Broward County jail was so full, a judge called the conditions unconstitutional. The county needed a $70 million new jail. Instead, commissioners voted to expand pretrial release. Within a year, the population plunged so dramatically, the sheriff closed an entire wing of the old jail, saving $20 million a year. And according to court records, defendants were still showing up for court. Commissioners lauded the program, called it a success. Then a year ago, at a mundane January meeting, the same commissioners voted to gut it.
Unidentified Woman: All those in favor of item four, signify by aye.
Unidentified People: Aye.
Unidentified Woman: Oppose, signify by nay. Item number four passes.
SULLIVAN: Item number four, a bill putting strict limits on who can qualify for pretrial release, cutting the program by several hundred defendants. Broward's pretrial officials were stunned, so was the county's public defender Howard Finkelstein.
Mr. HOWARD FINKELSTEIN (Public Defender): I don't know whether what happened was illegal or unethical. I can tell you it stinks all the way to the rafters.
SULLIVAN: Who, they wondered, could possibly be against their program? It turns out, in Broward County, 135 people. To be exact: 135 bondsmen who had them completely outmatched.
Mr. WAYNE SPATH (Bail Bondsman): We're tenacious. We do our job.
SULLIVAN: Wayne Spath led the charge of Broward's bail bondsmen to get the pretrial program cut back.
Mr. SPATH: People should not just be released from jail and get a free ride. I mean, this is the way the system's got to work.
SULLIVAN: Spath argues that pretrial release costs too much money. And plus, he says, it was hurting their business. So he and the other bondsmen did what any self-respecting private business group would do: They hired a lobbyist.
Mr. ROB BOOK (Attorney): To be perfectly arrogant about it, I'm considered, if not the best, certainly one of the best in the state.
SULLIVAN: Ron Book has been lobbying for bondsmen in Florida for more than a decade. He quickly went to work. According to campaign records, Book, Spath and more than a dozen other bondsmen spread almost $23,000 across the council in the year before the bill was passed. Fifteen bondsmen cut checks worth more than $5,000 to the now Council Mayor Ken Keechl, just five days before the vote.
Keechl and several other commissioners declined NPR's repeated requests for an interview. At the council meeting, they said they were concerned that Broward's pretrial program cost more than those of nearby counties. And they vigorously denied campaign contributions played any role.
Book had his work cut out for him. Broward's own county attorney wrote a memo warning commissioners that limiting pretrial could be unconstitutional. But Book worked behind the scenes. He met with commissioners, and according to county records obtained by NPR, had unusual access. Turns out he was working for the bondsmen at the same time he was already working for the commissioners as their lobbyist. He says that wasn't a conflict.
Mr. BOOK: I've never tried to mislead the public on the issue. The truth is I have a client: the bail bondsmen. The truth is my client is an alternative to pretrial release. The fact of the matter is my clients are held accountable. I've never been more right from a public perspective than I am on this issue.
Mr. FINKELSTEIN: Don't pee on me and tell me it's raining.
SULLIVAN: Public Defender Howard Finkelstein is feeling the brunt of the cutbacks. He says every day he has to meet with more of his clients behind bars clients who might once have been candidates for pretrial release. Hundreds are stuck in jail, he says, because the bondsmen are hoping they'll find the money to become paying customers.
Finkelstein says it's true that pretrial release costs taxpayers money. But he says it costs millions more to leave indigent defendants in jail because they can't afford a bondsman's fees.
Mr. FINKELSTEIN: Don't tell me that you're doing this for the good of the people. You're doing it for your own good, and that's fine, but then you shouldn't have a seat at the table when public policy is made.
SULLIVAN: In recent years, that seat at the table has grown larger, not just in Broward, but nationwide. Bondsmen have lobbied to cut back local pretrial programs from Texas to California, pushed for legislation in five states limiting pretrial's resources and lobbied Congress so they won't have to pay up if a client commits a new crime.
Behind them, the bondsmen have a powerful special interest group and millions of dollars. Pretrial release agencies have a smattering of public employees and the remnants of their once thriving programs.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
BRAND: At our Web site, NPR.org, you can find a graph showing the big impact of Broward's pretrial release program, and you can find the other stories in that series, again, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.