A Monopoly On Information: How Advertising In Jails Is Problematic For Defendants

Imagine being arrested and finding yourself in a jail cell. You have no access to a phone or the outside world. You know you have to show up for work the next morning but you have no idea what’s about to happen to you. You’re confused, afraid, and you would do anything to get out.

A few hours later you’re placed into “the tank” where an officer begins to ask you question. The tank is a holding cell filled with other recent arrestees all awaiting their fate. There’s not much to look at in “the tank” but you do notice a poster on the wall. The poster gives the names and numbers of many different bail bond agencies. You have no idea what a bail bond is and you’re still confused about what’s about to happen to you, but the advertisement tells you these agencies can help you get out.

product-2

The questioning stops and you ask if you can call one of the agencies. The officer allows this phone call without hesitation. Your call goes right through at no cost to you (not yet, anyway). This is because bail bond agencies generally contract with the jail phone service providers to ensure that defendants inside the jail have immediate access to them.

 

You speak to an agent named Bad Boy who promises he can bail you out in forty-five minutes. Unlike the officers and other law enforcement personnel you’ve come in contract with since your arrest, Bad Boy treats you like you’re human. At this point, you agree to pay him $5,000.00, 10% of the total cost of bail, to come bail you out. He tells you he can contact your wife for you and let her know you’re coming home. But most importantly, he tells you “everything is going to be okay” now that you’ve contacted him.

A few hours after you hang up the phone, Bad Boy comes and picks you up from jail. However, instead of taking you home, he takes you into his office to sign a lengthy contract that you don’t understand. At this point, you’re so exhausted that you sign without reading it (and because Bad Boy was so nice and polite). You are now facing a multitude of inconveniences: criminal charges from your arrest, expensive court fines, missed work, and now a contract with a bail bond agency where you have agreed to pay thousands of dollars.

This scene is all too familiar for those who have spent enough time researching the bail system in the United States. Many issues arise out of this particular scenario. First, some defendants can be released on their own recognizance (OR) at no cost and may benefit from waiting to obtain a pretrial services assessment. Second, these types of contracts place defendants and their families in a very vulnerable position.

In this post, I will discuss advertising in Santa Clara County Main Jail. Specifically, I will look at the way in which bail bond agencies have been given a monopoly on the information available to the accused. A monopoly is complete control of the entire supply of a service in a certain area or market. For the purposes of this discussion the service provided is information about release available to the accused and the area or market is the jail. Those in control are the bail bond agencies. Readers must note that private defense attorneys are also allowed to advertise in county jails. While this also raises several concerns, I only discuss bail bond agency advertising because of the specific impacts associated with that advertising: how these agencies control the information available to a defendant and in some instances are a defendant’s only method of contact with the outside world.

I use the term defendant and accused interchangeably because it is often the case that someone may be arrested and never actually charged with a crime. My post begins by discussing how advertising has made its way into the county jails. I will then proceed to identify the steps involved in determining the ins and outs of this advertising. I will conclude by posing many unanswered questions pertaining to the negative effects of this form of advertising.

The Unexamined Consequences of Allowing Advertisements in County Jails:

In a letter dated March 1, 2016, John Hirokawa, the Santa Clara County Chief of Correction, recommended that the Board of Supervisors of the County of Santa Clara (the County) approve an agreement with the Jail Advertising Network (formerly known as Partners for a Safer America.) I will proceed in this post by referring to the Jail Advertising Network as Partners for a Safer America (PSA) because that is the name used in many of the Santa Clara County records. The agreement was approved. It allows PSA to sell advertising space in the Santa Clara County jails, bringing in over a hundred thousand dollars in revenue for the department of corrections(DOC). The only people/entities eligible to purchase advertising space are bail bond agencies and private defense attorneys.

In his recommendation, Hirokawa discusses the history of similar agreements made by the County and provides minimal information on the potential impacts of approving the agreement. Hirokawa writes, “the recommended action will have no/neutral” impacts on children, seniors, and sustainability. In one of his concluding statements, he indicates that the “DOC … would lose over 100K in revenues” if this agreement is not approved. Hirokawa’s letter fails to so much as even mention some of the potential negative consequences of this approval. For example, allowing for such advertisements without informing defendants of the potential for OR release may result in a defendant unnecessarily paying thousands of dollars to a bail agent. This lack of awareness or willful blindness on the part of the County is troubling primarily because it shows a complete disregard for the financial welfare of the accused, many of whom are their constituents.

Partners for a Safer America (Jail Advertising Network)

Let me digress for a moment to provide some background information on PSA and what it is they actually do. Simply stated, they are a company that contracts with counties all over California to sell advertisement to bail bond agencies. They keep anywhere from 20-30% of the profits and the County gets the rest (usually 70%-80%). The advertisement or product they produce is a poster board (as shown above). While this may sound simple, their home page provides a much more expansive interpretation of their work. The home page begins by describing the financial troubles faced by law enforcement agencies all over the United States. Their sales pitch concludes with a thought-provoking sentence, “As we grow in the number of institutions we support, we hope to realize the vision of safer, more secure communities from coast to coast.”

Untitled

At a first glance, it appears as though PSA is an agent of the counties they “support.” PSA’s website further encourages this mistaken belief by declaring their purpose is to provide “financial support and resources to those who keep our communities safe” and by using photos like the one above. To a naive outsider, it appears as though the PSA mission is much broader than simply providing advertising for bail bond agencies and private defense attorneys. 

 

Bail Agencies and Defense Attorneys Have A Monopoly on the Information Available to the Accused:

The following is brief overview of the way these advertisements work: bail bond agencies and defense attorneys pay a $1,375.00 fee to PSA. At the time of payment, these agencies also submit a “4’ X 6” ad. A few weeks later, PSA has a “drawing date” in which they randomly determine what the advertisement board will ultimately look like. The result is what PSA calls the “Santa Clara County Department of Corrections Signboards” a patchwork of advertisements placed in 71 different locations within two jail facilities (including “the tank”). An unnamed source has confirmed that these posters can be found in “the tank;” however, I was unable to find any information as to the other locations. The County usually agrees to use the advertisement for 6 months, at which point, agencies must make another payment and the cycle repeats itself.

Who benefits from this contract?

As mentioned above, Santa Clara County makes approximately $100,000.00 in revenue from this advertisement every year. (Yes, the county really is profiting from this system.) Bail bond agencies, on the other hand, pay approximately $2,750.00 to the county to secure their advertisement’s spot in this poster. This is not a bad deal for bail agents when we consider the fact that any given defendant is bound to be liable to them for that same amount in just one transaction. This is because bail is often set at such a high amount that a bail agent really can break even with one single transaction. What’s even more striking is the fact that bail bond agencies make over $15,000,000.00 in profits every year. While, the county and bail agents may profit from this system, there is only one clear loser: low-income defendants.

Easy and Effective?

Santa Clara County indicates that the advertisement provides individuals with “an easy and effective method” of identifying “available bail bond agents and criminal defense attorneys.” However, nowhere on the advertising signboard are defendants informed of the possibility of being released within a few hours on their own recognizance so long as they promise to appear for their scheduled court date. By allowing these advertisements, Santa Clara County fails to provide defendants with full and complete information. Also interestingly missing from these advertisements is the fact that some defendants will simply be released if the District Attorney decides not to press charges. When viewed in this way, bail bond agencies are given somewhat of a monopoly on the information that is provided to defendants in custody.

I proceeded with my discussion on this “monopoly” under the assumption that, for many defendants, communicating with their bail agent is much easier than communicating with anyone else outside of jail. The assumption is made for the following reasons: first, defendants are usually allowed to make phone calls but must use collect calls to do so. Second, making phone calls from jail is expensive and many families cannot afford to accept those calls when they come in. If your friend or family member cannot afford to accept the call, you may not have any other access to them. Given the fact that calling a bail agent is free to defendants in custody, this is often a defendant’s only option.

Considering these communication barriers and the fact that defendants in custody are not provided with complete information, it’s important for counties to consider just who is truly benefiting from this advertisement. As previously mentioned, an agreement between PSA and Santa Clara County was approved on March 1, 2016. Unfortunately, this agreement and the advertising will remain in effect until the year 2021. This is surprising because, in the last year, Santa Clara County has taken bold steps towards improving the negative impacts associated with bail. For example, Santa Clara County has established a Bail and Release Work Group (BRWG). The BRWG’s core mission is to “research and analyze the County’s current policies” in order to, amongst other things, make best practices recommendations. Despite the County’s much needed efforts, the accused of Santa Clara County will continue to be bombarded by bail bond advertising and often deprived of the necessary information to make an informed decision as to whether signing a contract with a bail agency is the best option for them. In order to counter some of the negative effects of this agreement and the advertisement, the County must ensure that the accused are provided with some kind of disclosure or perhaps a one-page sheet that informs people of their rights.

Advertisements