Earlier this week, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, made a huge announcement in the media. They announced that they love people that break the law. In fact, they love these people so much that they are launching a brand-new ice cream flavor in honor of them. It is called Justice Remixed. All I can say is wow…just wow.
According to the media, Ben and Jerry’s aren’t new to mixing social and political issues with there ice cream. In fact, they have spent over a million dollars on Facebook ads denouncing mass incarceration and demanding criminal justice reform. Now I don’t know about you, but nothing screams knowledge and criminal justice expertise to me like a couple of guys from Vermont that have made millions of dollars selling overpriced ice cream. But in today’s world of celebrities and corporations that feel the need to lecture the rest of us on political and social issues it is totally expected. But it doesn’t make it right. In fact, Ben and Jerry have gotten this one so wrong that I felt the need to stand up and say something…or at least write something.
First, Mr. Ben and Mr. Jerry…stop lecturing the rest of us how we need to feel and what we need to think. Just make your darn ice cream. Second, maybe it is time you stop virtue signaling as a marketing tactic. Just make your darn ice cream.
All that aside, if Ben and Jerry’s really wanted to save the planet and show they really care about their fellow man, it would be nice if they actually focused on a real criminal justice issue…justice for CRIME VICTIMS. Where is the special ice cream flavor for victims of domestic violence? Where is their special ice cream flavor for abused children? Where is their special ice cream flavor for the widows of those that have been murdered? I can only assume that they are still in the conceptual phase and not ready for distribution yet, right? Because if you were going to create an ice cream flavor for someone in the criminal justice system, it would be for the crime victim correct?
Listen, I can appreciate any company wants to help people. But you have got to be focused on helping the right person. Whether Ben and Jerry’s realizes it or not, they are NOT helping the right people. They are not making our communities safer. The criminal justice policies they are supporting are not improving the lives of crime victims or even increasing their chance of justice. They are simply perpetuating a false narrative that criminals are only bad because society wasn’t fair enough or good enough to them. This type of thinking is just plain outrageous.
I have looked into the faces of children that have lost a parent and I have consoled victims who have been beaten within an inch of losing their life. And I can tell you that they are the ones who deserve a “Justice Remix.” So all I have to say to Mr. Ben and Mr. Jerry is if you want to save the world and make a difference in peoples lives, focus your efforts on people who have had their lives taken from them. Focus on helping the innocent as opposed to the guilty. If not, then the rest of us who are really trying to make a difference and help those in need, would appreciate it if you would just keep quiet and make your darn ice cream.
IN OKLAHOMA, PRIVATE COMPANIES RUN PRETRIAL SERVICES, DRIVING PEOPLE INTO DEBT
A company in Cleveland County exemplifies how for-profit legal services affect poor and vulnerable individuals.
In May 2017, when 47-year-old Oklahoma City resident Jeremy Brown showed up to court for a drunk driving offense, he was given three options: go to jail, pay 10 percent of his $5,000 bail, or enter a pretrial services program that would also allow him to go home with certain stipulations, such as weekly check-ins.
He requested to leave with an “oral recognizance bond,” a promise that he would return to court. But even though it wasn’t a violent crime, the judge demanded more in return for Brown’s release.
Brown chose the pretrial services program because he couldn’t afford bail and didn’t want to spend more time in jail. But there was an important requirement he didn’t consider. “I didn’t read all the paperwork,” he said. “I didn’t know I would be charged $10 a day.”
From May until August, he struggled to pay that fee and checked in once a week with Cleveland County Pretrial Services’s office in Norman, Oklahoma, roughly an hour from his home. The weekly visits took more than three hours every week with travel, preventing him from keeping a full-time job.
Brown ended up leaving the program when he was arrested for another DUI and an assault in August. But his inability to pay for his services became an additional strike against him, he said. By the end of his supervision, he owed the for-profit company $760, which he compared to a car payment every month. He didn’t have a job at the time, and he wasn’t able to pay.
“I think it’s a racket,” Brown said. “Every little thing they do, they charge you for it.”
Cleveland County Pretrial Services is one of a growing number of private for-profit corporations entering the pretrial services industry in jurisdictions across the country, charging people for their own community-based supervision. This particular company has contracted with Cleveland County, Oklahoma, since 2008, charging people anywhere from $40 to $300 per month (plus occasionally an $8 daily fee for electronic monitoring) for different levels of supervision as they await trial.
This is really a poverty trap.Joanna Weiss, Fines and Fees Justice Center
To many counties, the private companies offer a way to save money and reduce jail populations. But advocates say that these programs are creating two tiers of justice—those who can afford bail and get released, and those who have to stay jailed or pay for their own supervision.
Roughly 80 percent of criminal defendants are considered poor, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. After a bail reform package failed in the Oklahoma legislature this year, activists began pushing for greater transparency about companies profiting off the poor at the county level, including Cleveland County Pretrial Services.
“This is really a poverty trap,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “If you can’t afford bail, we’re already dealing with people who are the very lowest end of the economic spectrum, and then we’re charging all these fees. That’s a massive problem.”
Under the latest contract between Cleveland County and Cleveland County Pretrial Services, obtained by The Appeal under the Oklahoma Open Records Act, the county is paying up to $365,000 a year for the company to run the pretrial program, a mental health pretrial program, and a community service probation program. According to Cleveland County Pretrial Services, the provisions of the pretrial release program can include mandatory weekly reporting, electronic monitoring, drug testing, and case management, among other things.
Assistant District Attorney Thomas Sasser told The Appeal that a representative from Cleveland County Pretrial Services attends all arraignments and then uses a risk assessment to determine the level of supervision needed. There are certain violent crimes that disqualify people from pretrial release, but if a crime qualifies, prosecutors consider criminal history and other factors to determine whether they can be assigned to pretrial release and at what level (0 through 3). A judge then makes the final determination whether they can be released.
Julia Curry, owner of Cleveland County Pretrial Services, told The Appeal there are 68 people currently in the program, with the majority required to pay $10 per day. Requiring someone to pay the extra $8 per day for electronic monitoring is rare; there are only three people paying for that service right now.
Curry said her program, which she describes as a way for the county to save money, doesn’t penalize people who can’t pay. If a payment is missed, participants can stay in the program unless a judge orders their supervision to be revoked.
“If you’re not able to pay it, and you’re doing everything you’re supposed to do, there’s no penalty,” she said. “We don’t report to a credit agency. We’re not here to try to set everyone up. We’re here to make everyone successful so that they can get through this process.”
Still, she conceded that a judge could always revoke pretrial release and send someone back to jail for missed payments. Brown said that while he was on pretrial supervision, that threat loomed.
They could “put you back in jail if you don’t pay your court costs,” he said.
Sasser said he does not consider ability to pay when assigning a defendant to pretrial release, but said that in his 18 months in the DA’s office, he has never seen a judge revoke release or sanction anyone for inability to pay. The only sanctions he has seen are if someone violates the requirements, like drug testing or weekly visits, and are forced to appear before a judge.
In that case, he said, sanctions could include writing a paper, doing community service, or spending time in jail, depending on the violation, he said.
The role of private companies in the legal system, whether they’re running prisons or supervision services, has garnered increased attention in recent years from civil rights and advocacy groups. A March 2019 report from the National Consumer Law Center, “Commercialized (In)Justice,” examined private players in the legal system and found that in pretrial services, companies take advantage of their ability to threaten clients with criminal consequences. At least 10 states allow counties and municipalities to contract with private companies to administer their probation systems for misdemeanor and lower offenses, the report found, and poor people of color are most likely to bear the costs.
Oklahoma has the country’s highest incarceration rate and, like many states, jails large numbers of people for their inability to pay bail. According to Open Justice Oklahoma, the median jail stay in Cleveland County for people accused of nonviolent offenses who didn’t post bond in fiscal year 2018 was 62.5 days for a felony and 33 days for a misdemeanor. Elsewhere in Oklahoma, median jail stays are even longer.
Since we do have the highest incarceration in the world, we can’t worry right now about doing things perfectly.Ryan Gentzler , Open Justice Oklahoma
For that reason, local criminal justice experts like Ryan Gentzler, director of Open Justice Oklahoma, are wary of criticizing any program that will help reduce jail populations, even if they impose steep fees.
“Since we do have the highest incarceration in the world, we can’t worry right now about doing things perfectly,” Gentzler told The Appeal. “Any progress toward getting more community supervision options … I would definitely view that as a positive sign that we’re starting to make some investments in alternatives to prison, because that’s just desperately needed here.”
But alternatives exist. In nearby Rogers County, Oklahoma, District Judge Sheila Condren issued an administrative order in 2017 to create a nonmonetary release program for nonviolent offenders to be released on their own recognizance. She enacted the program in response to a report from the Vera Institute for Justice which found significant overcrowding in the county jail. Though the program is in danger now due to personnel shortages, it helped to increase nonmonetary release in the country from just 3.8 percent of misdemeanor defendants in December 2016 to nearly 60 percent over the same time period the following year, according to Oklahoma Watch. The population of the jail also decreased to roughly 170 people from more than 300.
This year, Oklahoma’s legislature came close to passing Senate Bill 252, which would have required most people accused of nonviolent crimes to be released on their own recognizance. The bill ultimately failed by six votes because of opposition from law enforcement, prosecutors, and the bail bond industry, but it is already scheduled to be considered next year.
Allies could come from unlikely places. Despite her role leading a company that profits off people who can’t pay bail, Curry backed the legislation. “I definitely support any bill that addresses unreasonable and excessive bail,” she said.
Private companies in Cleveland County are involved later in the legal process as well. After cases are adjudicated, people are often assigned to a different private company for their post-conviction supervision. Assistant DA Sasser said he likes to think of the pretrial release as a “trial period” or “baby step” to show that “yes, I can be a productive member of society and complete whatever performance requirements are required by the judge.”
After Brown’s case was adjudicated, he said he was put on probation and “lo and behold, the same company is doing probation.”
Brown was ordered to a probation program run by Oklahoma Court Services, Cleveland County Pretrial Services’ sister company, which shares an owner. Through that program, he was subjected to $25 drug tests even though his original charge had nothing to do with drugs, and he racked up even more debt.
“I just recently got out from under them,” he said, explaining that he is hopeful that he will be released from probation early for good behavior.
Yet his ties to the legal system aren’t over. Because he’s unable to pay all of his fees, he said he plans to appear before a judge to dispute them. With all the requirements of the program and his arrests, he said he couldn’t hold a full-time job and lost his house. Sasser said that in situations like Brown’s, a judge could put someone on a payment plan instead.
But Brown said he still questions why he has to pay the fees at all and why private companies are being entrusted with public services.
“I think it’s a big mistake,” he said. “The [pretrial release] program sets people up for failure.”
SB 252, if passed, will release most defendants or as the ACLU calls them the “Justice Involved”. Some will have no bonds or supervision, some will go into programs that will be paid for by you, the taxpayer. Bondsmen cost the taxpayers nothing and are financially accountable to the courts if our clients fail to appear in court and we can’t get them back in.
A few states have tried bail reform and it’s a disaster. They claim it’s working wonderfully. Here’s the real story:
We now have some of the most lenient drug and theft laws in the country. The next step for the ACLU will be to provide the “Justice Involved” defendants with Uber rides to court, free daycare while in court and free phones to reschedule their court dates. That is what is being considered in Houston right now.
We are finally beginning to put some money into addiction and mental health treatment. That will be the most effective way to reduce the prison population. Bail Reform is not Criminal Justice Reform.
More than half of bondsmen these days are women. Many are single mothers. As Bondsmen, we are available to our clients 24/7. We constantly get calls at 3 AM from people who don’t know what time court is the next morning, which courtroom they are supposed to be in, don’t have a ride, got in an argument with their cosigner or think they need a warrant check because they just got pulled over by the police. We get out of bed and answer those calls. No government program will replace that. Yes, we get paid to do our jobs just as you do. But we do not just take the money. We provide a valuable service that will be hard to replace.
If we are going to end private bail and replace it with a government-run and taxpayer-funded program, we should at least come up with a reliable plan that works before we trash the one that has worked for hundreds of years, a program that balances accountability with compassion and concern for the people and families who need it.
There are several pretrial programs already in existence in many Oklahoma counties. These are the failure to appear numbers for this year in Oklahoma County for all non-bond programs. The actual names and case numbers are available to back up these percentages
There are many things wrong with the criminal justice system but the figures and stories put out by bail reform groups are not the whole story. Bail reform is not needed. These programs shift the burden of paying from the Defendants to the taxpayers they cost millions and aren’t effective. The failure to appear rate in Oklahoma County for the first appearance is over 50%.
Obviously I don’t want to be put out of business but if they had a better way of insuring people would show up to court and be accountable for their actions I would accept that. When the Defendant fails to appear in court the victims aren’t getting justice and more crimes are being committed. Public safety and accountability are what we bring to the table.
Most people who are not bonded by their families are in jail because their families want them to be. They need to know they are not going to overdose and die or steal Grandma’s money and jewelry again. Bondsman take payments and we work with people.
The truly indigent see a Judge and get released on OR within a few days obviously stuff happens and people do fall through the cracks but it is naive and idealistic to believe millions of innocent first time offenders are languishing in jail. If I hadn’t been doing this every day for 25 years I would believe the stories but I know the reality.
I care about my clients and I want them to get help but it’s not helping them to just release them with no supervision. What they need is more funding for inpatient rehab and mental health treatment. In Oklahoma we have defunded many of our drug programs and mental health services for years. That is where we need to put our money.