Sometimes – or perhaps more than sometimes – public officials hold so rigidly to a political philosophy that their legislative choices defy common sense. So it is with some N.C. Republicans, who apparently assume that whenever business and government perform a similar function, it’s better to let business do the job.
Lawmakers are considering this week a bill that would weaken Pretrial Services programs at courts in Mecklenburg and more than two dozen N.C. counties. The programs gather and verify information on defendants, in order to help judicial officers make bail decisions. Those assessments are somewhat similar to what bail bondsmen, however, so lobbyists representing the industry have convinced some legislators to steer business their way.
SB756, which could reach the House floor today, stops Pretrial Services programs from interviewing defendants for 48 hours. That would compel more defendants to use bail bondsmen to get out of jail, but it also could be dangerous and costly to communities across the state.
Here’s how the system currently works: If you’re arrested for, say, public intoxication at an uptown Charlotte event, you get taken to jail, where a magistrate reviews your case and sets conditions for your release. That decision often includes setting a bond – a promise of money or property that you lose if you don’t show up for court.
In Mecklenburg and other N.C. counties, defendants also are given the opportunity to be interviewed by Pretrial Services, which gathers information such as your prior record, attendance history at court hearings, employment and time in the community. From that, Pretrial Services determines the likelihood you would commit a crime or not show up to court if you were released on bail. That information is given to a first appearance judge the next morning – or perhaps immediately to the magistrate – so that your bond can be raised, lowered or eliminated.
All of which takes money out of the pocket of bail bondsmen, who would prefer to see defendants use their services instead of getting released because a Pretrial Services recommendation. Bondsmen say they perform a similar function – assessing risk before taking on clients – and that Pretrial Services is essentially a government-run competitor.
But Pretrial Services is much more. The program provides immediate and valuable information to judges, not only for the purposes of lowering bonds but raising them. “Why do you want to deny a judicial official pertinent information that helps keep someone in jail?” Tom Eberly, Mecklenburg County’s criminal justice director, told the editorial board Thursday.
Also, it’s not very profitable for bondsmen to deal with minor cases and smaller bonds. So if bondsmen bypass your hypothetical public intoxication case or you can’t afford bail, SB756 would sit you in jail unnecessarily for two days without a Pretrial Services interview. That’s unfair to the poor, costly to taxpayers, and could lead to overcrowding at some jails.
Public safety officials across the state – including Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray, a Republican – oppose the bill. They understand that Pretrial Services also offers defendants drug-testing and other helpful support, including reminders to get to court. That’s why a 2010 bail policy review by the Mecklenburg manager’s office found that defendants released through the program were more likely to appear in court and not commit crimes while awaiting trial than those who secured release on their own.
The programs are working – perhaps not so much for bail bondsmen, but for most everyone else. Sometimes, government does serve the public better than private enterprise. Lawmakers should let Pretrial Services continue to do so.