From The Houston Chronicle
Eight months ago, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, convened a local press conference to decry the shift toward more lenient bail decisions in Harris County that he said was contributing to the city’s uptick in violent crime, and he came with a bill he believed would help.
“The pendulum has gone too far in this area,” he said.
Standing on the dais with Bettencourt in support of the legislation — which would have limited the use of personal recognizance bonds and set minimum cash bail limits on defendants charged with multiple felonies — was Michael Kubosh, an at-large Houston city councilman and former bondsman.
Kubosh’s support made sense. Reforms in Harris and Dallas counties that had vastly reduced the number of misdemeanor defendants needing to post bail cut into profits for the $2 billion bail bonds industry, and Bettencourt’s bill boosting bail amounts could restore some lost revenue.
But for the industry, the more important aspect of the bill was what it didn’t do. While it targeted judges’ perceived role in speeding defendants’ return to the streets, it failed to even mention the deals that Harris County bondsmen have for years been cutting on an increasing number of violent felonies, also helping defendants to secure their freedom more easily while they await trial.
A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that bail bondsmen are charging lower fees and requiring much smaller cash payments to secure bonds — sometimes as small as 1 or 2 percent. Some defendants are even allowed to pay off their balance on a payment plan.
This trend of lenience, which apparently became even more popular this year, is essentially the bondsmen’s own version of bail reform, except unlike Harris County’s efforts, designed to free low-level, misdemeanor suspects, bondsmen are floating bail for violent offenders.
The Chronicle’s review of data from the first six months of 2021 found 141 cases — including 31 violent felonies — where defendants were allowed to pay less than 10 percent of their bond amounts.
There may be good reason to offer flexible terms for a defendant looking to post bond. But what we find so curious is that even as the Legislature moved this past year to impose new limits and transparency requirements on nonprofit groups who help arrange cash bail for poor defendants, they left out any reform of the bail bond industry. New requirements to track the success of each bond, and hold accountable groups whose clients skip out, easily could have been applied to both the charitable groups and the bail bondsmen.
The for-profit bonding industry is under pressure, it’s true. Companies operate in markets buttressed by inherently unfair cash bail systems, which are losing their luster as jurisdictions such as Harris County have implemented bail reform. Bail licenses in Harris County have dropped by nearly two dozen since 2017, the year bail reform was adopted. Bail bond earnings in Harris County plummeted from $3.5 million in 2015 to just over $500,000 in 2019, according to an estimate from federal court monitors tracking misdemeanor bail reform.
Threatened by dwindling revenue streams, bail bondsmen have also tried to drum up business by flexing their political muscles. The industry donated tens of thousands of dollars to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, according to a report by Reform Austin, for instance, before he made the bail reform bill that eventually passed a top priority. That law, which takes effect in December, limits the ability of some defendants to be released on low bonds, but doesn’t limit a bondsman’s latitude to make even sky-high bonds easy for a defendant to post if that’s what it takes to get business.
“We’re business people,” Kubosh told the Chronicle. “You collect what you can.”
That’s fair. They provide a service and as long as there is a cash bail system in Harris County, bondsmen have the right to try and profit from it.
But it’s not fair for Republican politicians, prosecutors and victims’ advocates to exempt the bail industry from the same scrutiny that’s being heaped on judges and charitable organizations.
No one should equate the for-profit bail bond industry with public safety. For that matter, no one should romanticize the traditional money bail system as a panacea when it clearly has holes you could drive a getaway car through.
Everyone truly committed to fighting rising violent crime in Harris County and getting dangerous repeat offenders off the streets needs to acknowledge all the culprits behind this crisis. Chief among them are the pandemic and a massive court case backlog dating back to Hurricane Harvey that’s delaying trials and creating more opportunities for offenders to commit more crimes.
Bondsmen should also be on that list. Why are we outraged by a judge setting a low bond but not a bondsman offering bargain basement discounts on those bonds? The result is the same.
Lawmakers should target the industry for reforms, which could include minimum bail fee percentages — four states employ such requirements — that would preclude negotiating deals for violent offenders. Each bond company is associated with an underwriter. The Legislature should require surety companies to audit each bail bond company and share those results with relevant officials, similar to a law that Minnesota passed in 2016. If bondsmen are giving unusually generous terms to suspects in violent cases who go on to reoffend, shouldn’t we know about that?
Yet even good-faith transparency won’t solve the root of the problem: Texas’ very use of money bail to determine release needs reform. This editorial board has called for a system that keeps people charged with especially violent crimes, or who pose substantial, imminent risks to public safety, in jail, whether rich or poor — even if that takes, as it likely will, changing the Texas Constitution. Bail bondsmen who profit off of the cash bail system by cutting deals with violent offenders and allowing them to walk free is further evidence that the status quo simply isn’t working.