John Oliver, Bail Bonds, Charter School Owners, ALEC and Privatization

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So, I was watching the latest Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. The main topic was our out-of-kilter bail system which can victimize low income people and their families from the moment they're taken into custody, whether they're innocent or guilty. It's a topic I've become more interested in lately with my growing understanding of the evils of our system of mass incarceration. (The most eye opening book I've read in years is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I recommend it highly.) I was more than usually attentive to what John Oliver was saying, and something kept knocking around in the back of my head. "Bail bonds. Bail bonds. When have I looked into that subject before?"

And then it hit me. Back in 2011 when I was trying to learn everything I could about BASIS charter schools, I googled Michael Block, who started BASIS with his wife, Olga Block, and I came upon an paper he wrote in 1997, before BASIS was a twinkle in the couple's eyes. The piece by Block, who is an economist by training, is titled, Runaway Losses: Estimating the Costs of Failure to Appear in the Los Angeles Criminal Justice System. The gist of his argument is, having defendants purchase bail bonds from private companies is preferable to pretrial screening and court-run pretrial release systems. Bail bonds, good. County pretrial release systems, bad. And, to take that to its logical conclusion: Private market, good. Government services, bad. According to the paper,
Not only does the private market perform better the main task of assuring the appearance of criminal defendants, but now we see it does it at a dramatically less cost to the taxpayers. These results should suggest a clear public policy agenda.
At the very top of the paper are the words, "American Legislative Exchange Council, Report Card on Crime." At the end are the words, "ALEC has prepared model legislation that addresses these issues. You may reach us at (202) 466-3800." (That's still the phone number of ALEC's Washington, DC, office, by the way.)

 Block wrote another paper on the subject in 2005, and the bail bond industry loves both of them. You can find both mentioned on the websites of, among others, Family Bail Bonds, Luna Bail Bonds, Tedd Wallace Bail Bonds and my personal favorite, Amen Bail Bonds ("The Answer To Your Prayer"). It's no wonder these folks like Block's scholarly take on the value of bail bonds, because selling bonds to defendants can be a very lucrative business. Programs that cut into profits are a threat, like programs in our federal courts and Washington, DC, where, according to Oliver's story, judges "are allowed to set money bail only if the defendant can afford it." And it's not surprising ALEC is a staunch defender of bail bonds, in the past before most people had heard of the organization and it was able to operate under cover of night, all the way up to the present when its operations are a little more visible. An article on the Marshall Project website, The bail industry wants to be your jailer, discusses a 2014 ALEC conference where the topic of one session was the dangers that sentencing reform poses to the bail bond industry. During the discussion, Nicholas Wachinski, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, said, “My task is to bring the sexy side of bail back.” According to the article,
ALEC has proved an effective legislative vehicle for the bail industry. . . . Bail industry leaders hold top positions within ALEC, and in 2010, the industry referred to the council as its “life preserver.” Forms of the post-conviction bail law that passed in Mississippi have been introduced in at least fourteen other states, in some cases with the help of ALEC-backed legislators.
When I write about charter schools, which is often, BASIS is a regular part of the conversation. I think it helps us understand the underpinnings of the BASIS system to know something about its founders' ideology and affiliations. Michael Block's early associations with ALEC and his endorsement of privatization in the area of bail bonds give us a taste of what his views are concerning district-run, "government" schools and his vision for the future of education in the country. The ALEC/bail bond association makes his statement on the subject of schools and privatization in 2012 all the more telling. In a column by Robert Robb in the Republic, Block commented, "I would privatize the entire government school system." Here's the entire quote:
"I would privatize the entire government school system. I don't think you can actually run schools today with the amount of disagreement we have over the fundamental mission of schools. Is it social welfare? Is it academic excellence? Is it social justice? You can't possibly have an educational system if you have this amount of disagreement, so privatize it."
Along with privatizing, Block, like the bail bond industry, also believes in profitizing. Though the individual BASIS schools are nonprofit, BASIS.ed, which sucks up most of the taxpayer money that goes to the schools and runs their basic operations, is a for-profit enterprise. Much of what happens at BASIS is hidden behind BASIS.ed's for-profit fire wall. How much do Michael and Olga Block make each year? We have no idea. How much taxpayer money drawn up to the for-profit makes it back to the schools? Again, no idea. Did any taxpayer funds help subsidize the building and operation of the BASIS private schools in Silicon Valley, CA, and Brooklyn, NY (tuition: $24,000 per year)? No idea there either because the private, for-profit BASIS.ed operates without public scrutiny. And that's just how Michael Block likes it, both personally and philosophically.

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