The bail-bond industry sent a glossy four-page flier to 50,000 mailboxes this month, warning Orange County taxpayers that elected officials are allowing drunken drivers, drug dealers and violent criminals out of jail by using a costly but flawed pretrial-release program.
That flier, urging residents to tell commissioners to end the “wasteful” program, lists people arrested and released for crimes ranging from drug possession and child neglect to concealing a firearm and lewd behavior. But various judicial and county officials say the mailer is misleading on a number of fronts and leaves out a crucial fact: all the arrested people cited in the mailer could bail out of jail and be on the street — even if the release program was not in place.
What the mailer really shows, county officials say, is a struggling bail-bond industry that fears the spread of successful pretrial-release programs nationwide could cost them serious business. “Our interest is public safety,” said Michael Tidwell, Orange’s jail chief. “The interest of the bail-bond industry is their livelihood; it's their profit margin.”
The mailer prompted County Mayor Rich Crotty to hastily include a public briefing about it for commissioners on today's regular meeting agenda.
The fight centers around certain minimal-risk jail inmates who are offered a low-cost release from jail while awaiting a court hearing. “They are releasing dangerous criminals back out on the street and making taxpayers pay for it,” said Deborah Jallad, an owner of the Accredited Surety and Casualty Company, the group behind the Orange mailer.
To qualify, inmates pay 21 cents a day to be supervised, often by calling to check in or taking a drug test.
First-time drunken drivers, folks arrested on minor theft charges and other nonviolent defendants qualify. County officials say they follow state and judicial release guidelines and they interview inmates to try to avoid letting out someone likely to run afoul of the law again.
The bail-bond industry flier says the program costs $1.7 million a year. But county officials say that figure reflects the total budget for that department and includes all the costs of inmate interviews and evaluations that would be done even if a release program didn’t exist. The taxpayer cost of just the pretrial release and monitoring program is actually about $430,000, Tidwell said.
Defenders of these programs say it's a more equitable way to deal with inmates — so not only those who can afford it can stay out of jail while awaiting trial. They say it also ensures that crowded jails are not filled with nonviolent offenders. As more defendants opt for these public programs, there's less chance they need to borrow bail money.
Orange’s program, which started in 1976, has seen a recent increase in pretrial releases. In 2006, about 1,800 inmates each month used a bail-bond agent to get out, but for the next three years that average dropped to about 1,600 a month, county records show. Meanwhile, pretrial releases climbed during that time, from about 143 each month in 2006, to an average of roughly 430 a month in the years since then.
Bail-bond agents still let out the vast majority of inmates. They usually require defendants to pay 10 percent of the cost of a bond and then put up the whole bail amount for them to get out of jail. The typical bail bond is $1,500.
But Jallad said Orange jail officials release folks arrested on battery or firearms charges who would be better supervised by bond agents, citing U.S. Department of Justice figures showing they get more bail-bonded inmates, overall, back for court hearings.
It’s difficult to say who does a better job of watching over released inmates. Orange officials contend they get about 84 percent of pretrial-release defendants back before a judge, without them getting in any trouble in between. Bail agents don’t keep those same statistics but argue if they didn’t get far more of their clients back before a judge, they would go out of business.