As early as 2001, nearly 300 pretrial services programs were operating in the U.S. These programs varied in their complexity, as well as the source of service provision. Among the entities managing the programs were sheriffs’ offices, independent agencies, probation offices, courts, and private non-profit organizations. While bail bondsmen are paid by the defendant to ensure a defendant’s appearance in court – and charged with the responsibility of apprehending those who fail to appear for their hearings – pretrial release programs are paid for with public funds.
These payments take a variety of formats. In the case of sheriffs’ offices and courts, local or state (and federal) funds are funneled to the service provider – in this case another government entity. In turn, that entity administers the release. If a defendant fails to appear for court, the responsibility and financial burden of recovering that individual also falls on the public, i.e. – taxpayers.
In instances of private agencies and non-profit organizations, funds are pushed from local, state, and federal government to these service providers. Lest anyone conflate “non-profit” with “charitable non-profit,” this is a good time to point out that many “non-profits” are very much revenue-driven. That is, they work very hard to bring in as much revenue as possible, and thus are very focused on money. In short, they have the same financial incentives that those in the private sector have, but without the benefit of that revenue flowing through to the individuals in charge of the nonprofit.
That nonprofit organizations are often abused and misused to garner and wield political power and to enrich those who allegedly are not supposed to benefit personally from their administration is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say that there is an astonishing amount of money flowing into, through, and around nonprofit organizations and any notion that these organizations are beyond reproach or naturally superior to private industry bail agents is misguided.
All that said, the duties of pretrial release programs – according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics – and regardless of what type of entity administers them, are the following:
Pretrial Research & Assessment
This starts with an investigation that helps the court make a release decision. This research involves interviews and gathering of records. While some defendants are not eligible for pretrial release due to the severity of the charges against them – or an existing probation or parole violation – many are eligible. The information that is typically collected prior to the release decision includes:
- Current Residency Status
- Employment Status
- Criminal Record
- Ties to the Community
- History of Court Appearances
- Mental Health
- Substance Abuse
Risk assessment tools are also often used to determine the “flight risk” of a defendant. These are analytical models or algorithms that take into account the profile of the defendant and match those data points against past observations. This is not done on a small-scale basis, but rather at a very large scale, with many points of data from which to draw.
Pretrial Supervision & Continued Contact
Pretrial release programs also provide supervision and continued contact or follow-up with defendants. It is in this area – which is naturally more difficult to administer – that many programs fall short. This process involves drug testing, monitoring defendants via electronic devices, and locating and returning defendants who fail to appear for court. The latter most often entails providing information to law enforcement officials rather than actual apprehension of fugitives.
Evidence typically shows that financial restrictions, i.e. – money bail or a surety bond – are more effective in ensuring appearance in court. Others argue that the improvements with bail are minute, and thus not worth the harm allegedly done to defendants. Regardless, the debate about bail bonds vs. pretrial release programs is going to continue.