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Alachua County bail fund proposal more expensive, less beneficial than claimed

The Alachua County Commission may green-light a new program aimed at helping suspects accused of low-level crimes get out of jail while they await trial, but according to a report from the county’s Court Services office, it may not help many people.

The “Community Bail Bond Program” would apply to people whose bail is set at $2,000 or less by using private donations to cover their tab with no expectation of repayment. Suspects with bonds below that threshold are generally facing misdemeanor charges, which have an average bond of $2,250 in the Sunshine State.

The group pushing for the program, Gainesville For All, says the CBBP would serve as a kind of crowd-sourced bail bondsman by fronting 10 percent of the bond — up to $200 for someone with a $2,000 bond — to spring people awaiting trial from jail.

They also say it could produce a ton of savings for the taxpayer, too, pointing to data that shows it costs taxpayers $185 per day for each inmate in the Alachua County Jail. Given that the average misdemeanor case takes 6 months from arrest to adjudication, that could add up to more than $33,000 in avoided costs.

Those against the proposal say both of those claimed benefits are questionable, however, understanding their argument requires a firm grasp on how the bail system works.

Bail is set by judges, often according to a bail schedule that sets a range for certain crimes in their jurisdiction. Someone accused of a petty crime, such as driving without a license, might have their bail set at $1,000. Those accused of a more serious crime may get five-figure bond rates, while suspects in capital cases may have to post a six- or seven-figure bond to get free if they are even given the option of bailing out.

While bond rates are generally commensurate with the crime a person is accused of committing, Florida judges have broad leeway to set bail higher or lower based on several factors, but the most important consideration is whether the judge believes the suspect is will show up in court.

Once the judge sets bail, suspects have three choices: Pay it in full, pay 10 percent to a bail bondsman, or remain in jail until their day in court.

Those who pay in full can get their money back, less court costs, by showing up for their court date. If they skip town, they forfeit that money and face new charges for failing to show up in court. If the suspect signs with a bail bondsmen, no refund is due even if they are found not guilty — the bondsman keeps that fee as his pay but is on the hook for the other 90 percent of the bond if the suspect is a no-show in court.

It’s those who remain in jail that would be helped by the Alachua County CBBP.

An article in The Gainesville Sun, which started Gainesville For All, argues that that class of suspects are falling through a “crack in the system” because they cannot post the full bail and they are ignored by bail bondsmen who won’t get out of bed for a $100 payday.

Matt Jones, a Charlotte County bail bondsman who serves as president of the Florida Bail Agents Association, said that “is a totally false narrative.”

“I would rather take 10 $1,000 bonds than one $10,000 bond,” he said, equating it to making 10 small bets rather than one large one.

Jones added that, in his experience, those who don’t post bond due to lack of money make up only a small portion of those sitting in jail pre-trial. He said in 9 out of 10 cases where a suspect doesn’t post bail it’s because their parents or family “are done with them.”

In most of the remaining cases, the suspect is homeless. That poses a different set of problems, as without a permanent address, they can be difficult to track down to make sure they attend court hearings.

For those who cannot pay a bondsman in a lump sum, Jones says he’s “never met a bail bondsmen that doesn’t accept payments,” and many of them accept as little as $25 a week. Additionally, state law prohibits bondsmen from charging interest on payment plans.

Ken Berke of Roche Surety, an underwriter that insures bail bonds, agreed. But the assertion that people are “falling through the crack” isn’t his main issue with the Alachua County proposal. He’s more concerned with who is on the hook if someone bailed out by the CBBP skips town.

Those concerns are given some weight by a new report from the Alachua County Court Services office, which examined 90 days of first appearance records and found only eight candidates who would qualify to be bailed out via the CBBP.

Of those eight, six had failed to appear in court. That’s likely why they weren’t released bail-free under the new policy in Florida’s 8th Judicial Circuit, which includes Alachua County, that releases many low-level offenders with minimal flight risk before they go before a judge.

Had any of those eight people been clients of a bail bondsman, the bondsman would be on he hook for the rest of the bond. That’s not the case for the proposed CBBP — if someone they bail out doesn’t show up in court, taxpayers would shoulder the bill.

With the potential costs in mind, the amount proponents claim the CBBP would save taxpayers deserves due to reducing the prison population deserves some extra scrutiny. It’s not clear where The Gainesville Sun came up with their $185 per prisoner per day figure.

The Alachua County Jail’s 2018 budget measures in at $33.2 million and, according its population data indicates it houses an average of 807 prisoners per day. That works out to $112.71 per prisoner per day.

But that budget figure includes more than $15 million in staffing costs and other expenses that would not be impacted by, as the Court Services report suggests, a reduction of 32 over the course of a year. The program, Berke said, would save only save about $10 per prisoner per day in food costs.

“Even if you knock 10 percent off the jail population, are you going to get rid of 10 percent of the jail?” he said. “How many people are you going to fire? None.”

The problem with the bail system, Jones and Berke suggest, is not that there are people languishing in jail because they cannot afford a $100 payment, but that many are given a high bail or denied bail altogether.

Berke took three samples of the Alachua County Jail population, looking at the first 10 percent prisoners by name on each occasion, and found that as many as half of them were denied bail. Another fifth had been found guilty of a crime and were serving their sentence.

In each instance, only a handful were given a “low” bond of $10,000 or less. Of those, only one or two had bonds that were under the CBBP’s $2,000 threshold.

The Alachua County Commission plans to consider the Community Bail Bond proposal when it meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Gainesville. The Court Services report is below.

Alachua County Community Bail Bond Program by Andrew Wilson on Scribd

Written By

Drew Wilson covers legislative campaigns and fundraising for Florida Politics. He is a former editor at The Independent Florida Alligator and business correspondent at The Hollywood Reporter. Wilson, a University of Florida alumnus, covered the state economy and Legislature for LobbyTools and The Florida Current prior to joining Florida Politics.

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