Monday, August 8, 2011

Galveston looks to eliminate pretrial services

Galveston County is in a mood to cut their operating budget and one of the biggest targets is the Pretrial Release Agency. The PRA serves two primary functions: they monitor defendants who have interlock devices installed on their cars and they acts as a low cost bonding agency for jailed defendants who qualify for their services.

Members of Commissioner's Court view the agency solely in terms of the latter - a subsidized competitor to the private bonding companies doing business in Galveston. Due to the severe poverty in the county (which county officials would rather ignore), there are plenty of people being held in the Galveston County Jail because they cannot afford to post a bond.

These folks turn up on the daily afternoon misdemeanor jail docket. The county has already reduced the number of jail docket attorneys from three to two in an effort to save $57,000 a year in attorney fees. If the PRA is eliminated, the number of inmates appearing on the jail docket will increase which will create a need to put a third attorney back on the docket - or putting added pressure on the jail docket attorneys to plead their clients out.

All of us who work within the criminal (in)justice system know that it's a whole lot easier to fight a case when your client is able to work and sleep in his or her own bed. As long as a defendant is locked up, the pressure to plead out increases. When you're sleeping behind bars, the siren song of "time served and a fine" sounds a whole lot nicer than litigating a suppression motion.

According to Ms. Bonita Quiroga, the director of the Office of Justice Administration, eliminating the agency will result in all of two people being laid off -- hardly a savings bonanza. Elimination of the agency would also put the Galveston County Sheriff's Office in charge of issuing personal bonds for defendants who qualify for them.

Of course the private bonding companies want to see PRA go away. They look at the number of folks who walk out of the county jail through pretrial release and see dollar signs. The problem is, if these folks could have afforded to post a bond, they would have.


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