This study was completed on behalf of the Dallas County (Texas) Criminal Justice Advisory Board (CJAB).


Relative to other elements of the criminal justice system, pretrial release and the mechanisms by which it operates, has received little attention from scholars and empirical research is lacking. To date, no study has been carried out that has focused on pretrial release mechanisms at the county level and their isolated effects on failure to appear(FTA) and recidivism/pretrial misconduct.

Further, it remains unclear whether the costs associated with one particular form of release outweigh the costs of another. While a handful of studies have explored failure to appear and recidivism across release types, they have been limited by data problems or problematic research designs.

The purpose of this study was to address a number of very important issues that underlie pretrial release from jail, specific to varying mechanisms of release including: attorney bonds, cash bonds, commercial bonds, and pretrial
services bonds.1 Archival data was culled from official records collected by the Dallas County criminal justice system as well as from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). The analyses presented here were based on all defendants booked into the Dallas County jail during 2008 for a crime/s in which the defendant was not previously arrested/jailed, and who were released via one of the above noted release mechanisms (n = 22,019).
Specifically, this study addresses the following questions:
(1) Do failure to appear (FTA) rates vary across release mechanisms and if so, by how much?
(2) Does recidivism/pretrial misconduct vary across release mechanisms and if so, by how much?
(3) What are the additional court costs (observed and estimated) associated with FTA rates across release types?
(4) What are the strongest predictors of FTA across each release mechanism?

Methods and Findings

Regarding FTA and recidivism/pretrial misconduct, this study approximated an experimental research design to provide for an objective “apples-to-apples” empirical analysis (propensity score matching). This analysis suggested that net of other effects (e.g., criminal history, age, indigence, etc.—see technical appendix), defendants released via commercial bonds were least likely to fail to appear in court compared to any other specific mechanism. This finding was consistent when assessed for all charge categories combined and when the data were stratified by felony and misdemeanor offenses, respectively. For felony defendants(among the matched pairs), those not released on commercial bond were between 39 and 56 percent more likely to fail to appear in court, with the largest difference being between cash and commercial, followed by pretrial and then attorney bonds. For misdemeanors, differences were similar, ranging between 26 and 32 percent with pretrial bonds being the most different from commercial, followed by attorney bonds, then cash bonds. Overall, analyses based on the data explored here suggest that commercial bonds were the most successful in terms of defendant appearance rates, followed by attorney bonds, cash bonds, and pretrial services releases.

Findings for the remaining bond type comparisons were mixed. For felonies and misdemeanors, limited/inconsistent support was found favoring FTA rates for pretrial services over cash bonds; other differences were not statistically significant.

Regarding recidivism (or pretrial misconduct), analyses were carried out for new crimes occurring within 9 and 12 months of release for the book-in of record. It is important to note that such crimes may or may not have occurred during the pretrial phase for the book-in of record as this data was not readily available. The findings for recidivism were mixed and more commonly null (i.e., no difference was found between release types). Note: Extreme caution should be used in interpreting the recidivism/pretrial misconduct analysis due to the situational factors associated with recidivism that are completely external to the associated release mechanism.

As to the costs associated with FTA across each release type, model estimates suggest that commercial bond releases were the most cost-effective in Dallas County, based on the group of defendants captured by the study.

This finding was corroborated by the observed data, which suggested that for the 22,000+ defendants captured by this study, assuming a public cost of $1,775 per FTA2, the use of commercial bonds saved over $7.6 million (or ~$350k per 1,000 defendants) among felony defendants and over $3.5 million (or $160k per 1,000 defendants) among misdemeanor defendants, as compared to attorney bonds, cash bonds, and pretrial services bonds. For misdemeanors, the largest differences in costs were found between commercial bonds and pretrial services bonds.

For felonies, the largest differences in costs were found between commercial bonds and cash bonds. Estimate adjusted for inflation from 1997 dollars. Base estimate taken from Block and Twist (1997), who conducted a complete cost-benefit analysis of failure to appear in Los Angeles, CA.

The full report can be found at:
Dallas Pretrial Release Report