Pima County proposes new Community Bond Program.jpg

Since 2018, Pima County’s criminal justice agencies have been working on a proposal for a new Community Bond Program wherein the county would fund a non-profit bonding agency and help bail out qualifying defendants in the Pima County jail, under certain circumstances.

The program is intended to help reduce the size of the county jail population, and help prevent defendants from being incarcerated for weeks, months or years when they have not been convicted of a crime. It would apply to defendants in both felony and misdemeanor cases.

“Individuals who are incarcerated pre-trial are mostly confined not because they were denied bail or were a flight risk or were a danger to the public, but rather because they could not muster the financial resources needed to secure their freedom,” said Public Defense Services Director Dean Brault in the proposal. “An individual’s inability to afford monetary bail is not an indicator of that individual’s guilt, an accurate predictor of the risk of danger that individual poses to others, or an indicator of whether that individual will show up for a scheduled court proceeding.”

Brault said incarcerating individuals who cannot afford money bail without meaningfully considering other alternatives is a violation of those individuals’ due process and equal protection rights under the law.

The non-profit in charge of the Community Bond Program would offer to bail out any defendant who Pretrial Services recommends be released, and their bond is $30,000 or less. This program would not be available in cases with homicide, sex or child exploitation charges or if the defendant has a hold from another jurisdiction.

In order to be bailed out by the Community Bond Program, defendants would have to sign a contract agreeing to follow whatever conditions of release were recommended by Pretrial Services. According to Brault, this program would not result in defendants being subject to an increased level of supervision.

Individuals who are incarcerated before their trial are more likely to plead guilty, be convicted of a felony, receive longer sentences and be offered less attractive plea agreements, according to the proposal. Brault wrote that indigent defendants who cannot pay their cash bond are especially prone to losing employment, housing, vehicles and their children, even if they are in jail for a short period of time.

Pima County jail data from 2017 shows that nearly one in 10 defendants are held on a bond despite a recommendation for release from Pretrial Services, according to an analysis by Public Defense Services. The proposal says over 76 percent of these defendants were eventually released while their case was pending, but only after spending a significant amount of time in jail.

“Evidence-based pre-trial assessment of a defendant’s likelihood to appear in court and remain arrest-free while awaiting trial can increase successful pre-trial release outcomes and diminish racial disparities without imposing unnecessary financial conditions, impairing the judicial process, or jeopardizing public safety,” Brault wrote. “Despite these facts, the court often does not follow recommendations for release utilizing evidence-based pre-trial assessments and holds many defendants on bonds that they cannot afford.”

Brault argues the Community Bond Program would stabilize the lives of such individuals in this situation by releasing them quickly and preventing unnecessary time in jail.

The proposal estimates that the program would save about $2 million in taxpayer money by reducing the amount of people incarcerated in the jail. Brault said there would be no risk of the county losing the bonds that are posted, because all the forfeitures are deposited into the county General Fund.

No other jurisdiction has a bond program similar to this, Brault said. If Pima County were to pursue it, they would be the first to do so.

According to the proposal’s analysis, there were 772 people held on bond despite receiving recommendation for release from Pretrial Services in 2017. Of those, more than 29 percent of those cases were dismissed prior to indictment. There were a total of 2,590 defendants held in custody that year.

The analysis found that only 1.1 percent of the total 7,000+ defendants in 2017 would have been released under this program and then have to go back into custody after being convicted and sentenced to the Arizona Department of Corrections.

If the program is approved by the Board of Supervisors, the county’s Grants Management and Innovation Department would put out a Request for Proposals to non-profits interested in operating this kind of program. The proposal states that the county would provide grant funding to the chosen non-profit to be used solely for covering bond forfeitures or cash bonds for participants in the program.

“The way professional bonding agencies operate is that when posting secured bonds, no money is actually transferred at the time a bond is posted,” Brault said. “With proper credentials issued by the Clerk of the Court, the department at the jail that processes the posting of bonds accepts forms that avow that the agency has the funds to cover the bond in the event of a forfeiture. The paperwork or electronic document is accepted and the defendant is released.”

He said using a bonding agency is beneficial because the process is faster and less costly to the jail and Superior Court. If this program were to be operated only with cash, it would take longer to bail participants out and a larger amount of funding would have to be distributed to the program.

The chosen non-profit would have staff working in the lower level of the Pima County jail working directly with Pretrial Services and jail staff to identify eligible participants, in order to “greatly expedite releases and reduce the number of defendants being fully booked into the jail.”

In his memo sharing Brault’s proposal with the Board of Supervisors, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry noted that eliminating the system of cash bail is one of the top priorities of the county’s Criminal Justice Reform Advisory Commission.

“I understand that some in the reform community prefer a system that eliminates cash bail or bonds all together. Such is desirable but not permitted because of current Arizona law,” Huckelberry wrote. “Reform and/or modification to Arizona law will have to occur by approval of the legislature and governor. Until that time occurs, the CBP may be a reasonable substitute.”

To read the full proposal for a Community Bond Program, click here.