Now here’s something lovely:
Leslie Chew spent his childhood working long days next to his father on the oil rigs of southern Texas. No school meant he never learned to read or write. Now in his early 40s, he’s a handyman, often finding a place to sleep in the back of his old station wagon.
But he got by — until one night in December 2008 when the station wagon got cold, and he changed the course of his life.
“Well, I stole some blankets to try to stay warm,” he says quietly. “I walked in and got them and turned around and walked right back out of the store. [The security guard] said, ‘Excuse me, sir, come here. Are you planning to pay for these?’ I said, ‘No, sir. I don’t have no money.’ That’s when he arrested me right then.”
When I first spoke to Chew last summer, he’d been inside the Lubbock County jail since the night he was arrested: 185 days, more than six months.
Chew is like one of more than a half-million inmates sitting in America’s jails — not because they’re dangerous or a threat to society or because a judge thinks they will run. It’s not even because they are guilty; they haven’t been tried yet.
Anyway, I’m sure that there are a lot of people who won’t have too too much sympathy for many of the people who are profiled in this story, but there is one particularly outrageous bit that is worth readin:
There is one other solution. It’s a county-funded program called pretrial release. Nonviolent inmates are released under supervision, often with ankle bracelets, drug testing or counseling. It costs only a couple dollars a day, compared with the national average of $60 a day in jail.
Kelly Rowe, chief deputy of the Lubbock jail, says that pretrial release is an important option. In Lubbock, it operates out of the jail’s intake area, where inmates are processed into the jail, and he takes me down there.
A block away from the jail, Steve Henderson runs Lubbock’s parole and pretrial release program from a small, dark office. He says his shoestring budget can’t afford an officer at the jail. He can’t even afford to accept collect calls from inmates looking for pretrial help.
“Follow the money,” Henderson says. “Usually whenever you’ve got questions of money, you follow the money and they’ll tell you the reasons why some things operate.”
He says the bail bondsmen don’t want to see his program receive anything more than limited funding. The bondsmen “make money and they contribute their influence,” Henderson says. “I would do more if we had the funding to do more.”
It’s not that Lubbock’s bondsmen want Henderson’s clients. They don’t. Henderson’s clients can’t afford a bondsman’s fees.
But Henderson says the bondsmen lobby to keep his program as small and unproductive as possible, so that no paying customers slip though — even if that means thousands of inmates like Raymond Howard and Leslie Chew wait in jail at taxpayer expense, because they never find the money to become paying customers.
Across the street from the Lubbock jail is a row of one-story offices with painted ads: Student discounts! Lubbock’s #1 bonds!
Inside one of them, Lubbock Bail Bond, three young women work the phones and greet customers. This is one of the biggest bonding shops in town.
Here’s how it works: You’re arrested. A judge gives you $5,000 bail. But you don’t have $5,000, so you pay Lubbock Bail Bond a nonrefundable fee — at least 10 percent of your bail — and you get out of jail.
“We put up the total amount; they pay us a premium. As long as they show up for court, we make money,” says office manager Ken Herzog.
There are about a dozen bail bond companies in Lubbock, serving a rather small population of 250,000. Herzog says it’s a cutthroat business that leaves no room for even a modest pretrial release program. As an example, he describes a time he was working to make bond for an inmate. A clerk at the courthouse told him that the inmate had been interviewed by pretrial release program workers who were working to get him out of jail.
"I said, ‘Oh no, they ain’t,’ " Herzog says he told the clerk. “So I went to the judge that signed the motion for pretrial and told her what was up. They had no business even talking to this person. They pulled their bond, and I got the person out of jail.”
I ask him if he is talking about Henderson from Lubbock’s pretrial release office. "If he gets in my business, I told him, ‘I do this for a living,’ " Herzog says. “I said, ‘You don’t do that. We set this thing up.’ I said ‘I’ll work with you any way I can, but you’re not going to get in my business.’ Well, he backed off.”
It’s unlikely Henderson had much choice. Henderson works for county officials. And county officials are elected.
“We take care of the ones who take care of us,” Herzog says. “We don’t want to pay anybody off, per se. We just want to support the people who are trying to help our business.”