Investigative reporter Tony Plohetski has recently put the Travis County personal bond system under harsh spotlight with claims that the system is too lenient and endangering Austin’s community. Plohetski’s articles have resulted in an uproar from criminal defense attorneys who believe that Plohetski is not seeing the full picture and misrepresenting the Travis County system.
To fully understand the debate, allow me to provide some basic background information on bonds. Firstly, when individuals are arrested and put in jail, a bond amount is set for their release. If these individuals don’t adhere to the agreements of the bond or fail to show up for their court dates, then the courts will sue them for the full bond amount as well as put them back in jail, taking away bond privileges. Rarely do people get second chances at bond.
There are two major types of bonds: personal and cash. Personal bonds mean that once arrested, you can be released for no cost but a hefty promise. Of course, you would still have a bond amount set. Let’s say the bond is set at $20,000. You can get out for no cost while your court case is proceeding, but if you fail to show up to court or adhere to the agreed upon conditions, than you will be responsible for paying $20,000.
Cash bonds differ in that you have to actually put up the full bond amount with the understanding that you will get it back as long as you stick to the rules, etc. You can either do this with your own cash, or hire a bondsman who will put the money up but charge you a nonrefundable 10-20% fee (also known as a “surety bond”). This fee only benefits bondsmen and in no way goes back to the court system. It means that the arrested individuals already have to pay big bucks when they haven’t yet been proven guilty. Remember, we are supposed to live in a country built on the decree: innocent until proven guilty.
The Travis County bond system is known for granting more personal bonds than any other county in Texas. Reporter Plohetski believes that this endangers Austin by allowing more defendants to be out of jail, thus making them more likely to commit crimes or fail to make court appearances. Plohetski feels our current system is too lenient, and he advocates for more involvement by the District Attorney’s office in the personal bond decision process. He feels that individuals either need to wait it out in jail or cough up cash for a surety bond.
However, Chris Perri disagrees, along with most other fellow criminal defense attorneys (click here for opinion of attorney Bradley Hargis), and feels that the Travis County bond system is one of the most progressive programs in the state. Chris believes that when counties fail to offer personal bonds, they create a class system divide. Those who cannot afford to hire bondsmen have to wait in jail, despite not yet being proven guilty. Many individuals spend months in jail. It creates an incentive structure for those stuck in jail to plea out their case just to get out of jail, leading to potentially unjust legal outcomes.
It also hurts both the criminal defense attorneys as well as the county. If defendants are forced to spend their financial resources on bondsmen, then they are less likely to be able to afford a criminal defense attorney and more likely to apply for a county-funded court-appointed lawyer. Also, keeping people behind bars costs tax dollars.
Many criminal defense attorneys are concerned about Plohetski’s misleading claims. In response to the article, judges have made it more difficult for defendants to obtain personal bonds. And in response to Plohetski calling for more District Attorney involvement, the DA is trying to become more involved. Yet, this is redundant in that the county already pays for a program called Pretrial Services, which assesses whether a personal bond should be granted by investigating an individual’s criminal history and ties to the community, as well as the safety of any victims if the defendant is released. DA involvement would merely duplicate Pretrial Services’ role, leading to a slower, less efficient process.
Further, Plohetski claims that it is inappropriate for defense attorneys to talk to judges ex parte (without the opposing side present). Chris Perri disagrees, and states that in Travis County, prosecutors talk to judges without the defense attorney present in order to raise bond amounts or add burdensome conditions (such as an electronic monitor). Also, every judge requires extensive information on each case and reviews the recommendations of Pretrial Services. However, judges can overrule Pretrial Services' recommendations if they see fit.
Chris also says, in his experience, the type of bond doesn't matter as to whether or not a defendant will show up for court. It is uncommon for people to commit crimes while on bond, as people understand the severity of the ramifications. Yet, there will always be people who don’t adhere to the rules, regardless of their type of bond.
The progressive Travis County bond system isn’t broken—it just needs to be better understood.