While the "economic stimulus" packages developed by the U.S.
House of Representatives (H.R. 1) and the U.S. Senate (S. 1) were
originally intended to stimulate the economy, the legislation has
now become a political Christmas tree filled with funding for
activities that have little to do with stimulating the economy. Both
"stimulus" packages potentially include millions of taxpayer
dollars for the release of felons before trial. Specifically, the
House of Representatives has allocated $3 billion for the Edward
Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, while the
Senate has allocated $1.5 billion for the grant program.
Byrne JAG grants can be used by state and local governments for
29 broad criminal justice purposes, including funding pretrial
release agencies. Pretrial service agencies perform many important
tasks that assist the criminal justice system, such as pretrial
investigations to assist court officials in making release
decisions. Prior to a defendant's initial court appearance,
pretrial service agencies collect information about the defendant,
including employment and criminal histories, to ascertain whether a
defendant should be released back into society before trials.
In addition to pretrial investigations, pretrial services
agencies are also tasked with assisting in the release of indigents
from jail who could not afford to post bail. However, the mission
of too many pretrial services agencies has expanded beyond helping
indigents to include operating release programs for defendants who
would normally secure release through private bond agents. These
individuals are released on their own recognizance without offering
anything of value to ensure that they return on their court
Government should not provide a public good when the private
sector offers identical services with a similar--or as is often the
case, greater--level of competence. In this case, Byrne JAG grants
are being used to displace the services of private bond agents.
The Private Sector Does it Better
Private bail bond insurers provide important services to
defendants and society at no cost to taxpayers. In exchange for a
fee, private bond agents secure the release of defendants from
jails while the accused await trail. Compared to other types of
pre-trial release, research indicates that private bond agents are
more effective at ensuring defendants make their court
appearances. Individuals who obtain their release
through private bond agents are 28 percent less likely to fail to
appear before court than when freed on their own recognizance. When
defendants fail to appear before the courts and remain at large for
more than a year, private bond agents seem to be more effective at
catching these fugitives than public law enforcement: Those
released through the assistance of private bond agents have a
fugitive rate that is 53 percent lower than the fugitive rates of
those released on their own recognizance.
Instead of obtaining release through the assistance of private
bond agents, an enormous infusion of Byrne JAG funding, as proposed
by Congress, will likely lead to more criminals being released on
their own recognizance. This, in turn, will most assuredly result
in more criminals failing to appear before court and becoming
fugitives from justice.
Jeopardizing the Public's Safety
Not only should Congress be concerned about the pretrial
services funded by Byrne JAG grants, but these grants will do
virtually nothing to stimulate the economy. The activities
funded by these grant programs are not the types of activities that
will provide a stimulus or "shock" to the economy. Instead, Byrne
JAG grants may actually promote policies that jeopardize public
David B. Muhlhausen,
Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis
at The Heritage Foundation.
Eric Helland and Alexander Tabarrok, "The Fugitive: Evidence on
Public Versus Private Law Enforcement From Bail Jumping,"
Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. XLVII (April 2004), pp.