Budget cuts and the cost of maintaining an overcrowded jail forced Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden to begin releasing inmates accused of lesser crimes without bond. Other police agencies across the country are following suit — to the chagrin of bail bondsmen who say their livelihood is threatened.
Officials in this northern Colorado county insist they're reaping savings by placing released inmates into less-costly supervision programs that can include screening for domestic violence and mental health problems. Supporters of such pretrial programs, which are being tried from Atlanta's Fulton County to Spokane, Wash., argue that the usual practice of requiring bond for release doesn't prevent crime.
"It simply separates those who have money from those who don't," said Tim Murray, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Pretrial Justice Institute.
Pretrial programs in hundreds of places
Over the years, some 300 U.S. jurisdictions have implemented pretrial programs, Murray said. While no data suggests the numbers are growing because of the bad economy, Murray said the recession could force corrections officials to rethink their jail policies.
"They're looking at their (jail) population and realizing that many of the people they're paying to house are there because they can't pay their bonds," Murray said.
In Fulton County, Ga., officials decided in April to put more people under supervision instead of jailing them. Fulton County has had a pretrial services program for more than a decade but is expanding it to include people with prior offenses or those who may be homeless.
"We, like every jurisdiction in the country, are operating under financial stresses that require us to be innovative," said county spokesman Don Plummer, who said Fulton expects to save $5.5 million a year by expanding its program.
Florida's St. Lucie County adopted its program in 2007. Nonviolent offenders who can't afford bail "take up bed space for violent people who need to be in there," said Mark Godwin, the county's criminal justice coordinator.
Washington's Spokane County also is creating a pretrial services program because of jail overcrowding, said Spokane City Attorney Howard Delaney.
Adopting a head-count limit at jail
In rural Larimer County, population 287,500, declining sales tax revenues cut the sheriff's share of county collections from $9.26 million in 2008 to $6.64 million this year, said Bob Keister, county budget director. Alderden cut 12 positions, including seven jail deputies, to stay within his budget of just under $41 million. He also adopted a 460-person limit at the jail, where the population routinely surpassed 500.
Alderden released 47 inmates in January and 16 more in February before their sentences were completed to meet the new cap. That decision, and ramped up pretrial services, has helped put the jail population in the low 400s, said Gary Darling, Larimer County's criminal justice planning manager.
Darling said it costs $1.93 per day to keep someone under pretrial supervision, versus $104 a day to jail them. He estimates the county can save more than $4 million a year under the new system.
"The bondsmen know that this works and that's why they're threatened by it," Darling said. "My rebuttal question to them is 'Why do people have to pay you money to get out of jail when they haven't been convicted of anything?'"
Bondsmen typically earn a 10 percent fee by arranging bail. They argue that their services cost taxpayers nothing and ensure defendants make their court dates. Bounty hunters track them down if they don't.
"If the defendant fails to appear, we will go get them. Pretrial won't," said Vicki Marble, one of about 10 bail business owners in Larimer County. She said her net earnings used to be as much as $50,000 a year but have declined by up to 90 percent because of pretrial.
Darling countered that just 2 percent of an average 1,550 people a month in pretrial supervision fail to appear and that arrest warrants are issued for them.
'It's a bloated government waste'
That doesn't wash with bondsmen elsewhere.
"I hate it," said Chris Cagle of Atlanta, Ga. "It's a program that when it started it had some good to it. ... But now it's a bloated government waste."
"Repeat felons and all that, drug dealers who have money, they don't need help making their bonds," Cagle argued.
Dennis Bartlett, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, said enough members are concerned to keep his phone ringing.
"Some bonding guys call me and say 'Hey, they're moving in on us — what do we do?'" Bartlett said.
In Fulton, those who didn't previously qualify for release will be under intense supervision that can include ankle bracelets and twice-weekly contacts with case managers.
The bail industry argues that extreme supervision is akin to penalizing defendants who haven't been convicted. But Plummer, the Fulton County spokesman, say officials there are trying to balance community safety with defendants' rights. And Larimer's Darling insists bondsmen "pick and choose" their customers.
"There's a lot of people they won't touch" because some inmates don't have money, collateral or ties to the community, Darling insists.
"I really don't think it violates any due process," said Kris Miccio, an associate professor at the University of Denver and a former New York City prosecutor. "They're under the jurisdiction of the court because there's probable cause that a crime has been committed."
Those facing serious crimes stay behind bars
People charged with serious crimes — homicides, violent assaults, large drug offenses — stay behind bars. Inmates charged with misdemeanor theft, traffic and minor drug offenses, and property crimes such as burglaries, may be eligible for the pretrial programs.
Larimer's bail businesses have hired former county commissioner John Clarke to convince officials the bail industry is more cost effective than the $1.7 million the county spends on its pretrial program.
Maj. Bill Nelson, the Larimer jail's warden, said it's all counterintuitive to everything his 30-year career taught him. But he's pleased with the results.
"We used to try to put as many people in jail as we could," Nelson said.