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The Cost of Eliminating Bail

Advocates of government operation of pretrial-release programs in criminal court cases blame bondsmen of the private sector for the problems of the criminal justice system. One aspect of their proposed reform that they never talk about, however, is its exorbitant cost.

To replace the commercial bail business, state, county, and local governments  would generate costs that quickly would escalate beyond control to support public-sector pretrial-release programs. The actual cases below prove the point.

Morris County Example

The progress of bail reform in New Jersey bears out this pessimistic prediction of unsustainable costs. The state Association of Counties, which represents the interests of all 21 New Jersey counties, estimates that the Morris County launch of a pilot pretrial-release program in March 2016 will cost county taxpayers nearly $5 million, of which an estimated $3.2 million will be for renovations and retrofits of space at the county court complex for a new Pre-Trial Services Department with an undetermined number of new employees monitoring defendants at large before trial. Their salaries and information technology expenses, to be paid by the state apart from the $5 million from the county, nevertheless will be taxpayer funds. The pretrial-release services reform will need 13 to 15 more assistant prosecutors and detectives for Morris County at an estimated cost of about $1.5 million. Unfortunately for taxpayers, costs seem not to have been considered by government pretrial services proponents, who, however, seemed to ignore comments, suggestions, and objections from commercial bail sureties.

The proposal to eliminate bail in favor of nonfinancial conditions of pretrial release followed a report by a Joint Committee on Criminal Justice, which expressed concern that “many defendants are detained in jail before and during trial — while they are presumed innocent — because they cannot post bail.” The report recommended establishment of nonmonetary conditions of pretrial release and development of a “supervision mechanism” for “compliance with release conditions.” The report made no mention of costs for development and administration of the “mechanism” that would replace bail.

Washington DC Example

An important point about public-sector pretrial-release service agencies is that their services are not financially altruistic. In fact, they are extremely expensive and consume large outlays of public funds. The Washington DC Pretrial Services Agency annually requires $50+ million to oversee only a few thousand defendants, about $11,600 apiece. The population of Washington DC is about 700,000, that of the State of New Jersey nearly nine million. The population of the Morris and Passaic public pretrial-release program pilot counties exceeds one million.

Social Costs

There are social as well as financial costs when defendants fail to appear, violate their nonfinancial conditions of release, and remain at large committing more crimes. It is difficult to calculate this cost exactly, but it is not inconsiderable; some studies find it to be as high as $25,000 per delinquent defendant. This social cost may be the most harmful effect of incompetent public sector pretrial-release services.

Metropolitan counties that would operate economical and effective pretrial release programs can choose between incompetent and expensive public-sector pretrial-release services on one hand and private-sector commercial bondsmen of proven dependability at no cost to taxpayers on the other. The sensible choice could not be clearer. Experience proves private-sector commercial sureties as far better than bureaucracies in preventing failures to appear. When private sureties pursue absconders and bring them before the courts, they remove career criminals that otherwise would commit additional crimes. Commercial bondsmen pay premium taxes on their fees and make forfeiture payments on occasionally unredeemable bonds, substantial government revenue that taxpayer-funded public-sector pretrial-release programs never can contribute.

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