AIA Chief Legal Officer, Jerry Watson, is honored by ALEC for his years of service
Speaking before a board of public officials and private industry leaders at a recent four-day summit in Washington, D.C., AIA’s Chief Legal Officer, Jerry Watson, unveiled a proposal for a more responsible program of early penitentiary release in states overwhelmed with massive prison populations.
Watson’s plan builds on a policy that allows prisons to release inmates from their sentences early by posting bonds with the promise that those who breach the conditions of their release will return to custody. Approval of Watson’s amendment to the existing policy would add a new layer to early-release bond legislation. It would also have a huge ripple effect because the crowd Watson was speaking to shapes language for state laws from coast to coast. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a 36-year-old, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., with a sweeping national reach.
Watson’s proposal passed unanimously. That approval allowed the measure to proceed to a criminal justice task force within the nonpartisan group, where another bail industry leader presented it 48 hours later at the same conference. The measure again passed unanimously. Now, revisions are being made to existing post-conviction bill language on which the dynamic group has already agreed, creating a baseline of legislative language from which public officials can pull when writing post-conviction bond laws for their states.
“It will be disseminated to every state legislator in the country,” Watson said. “Obviously, this also provides an entire new product line for America’s bail agents.” For the bail industry, approval of the bill language for this and similar policies helps strengthen the market for agents because the policies stem from ALEC. Bringing together over 2,000 state lawmakers and over 300 nationally recognized private-sector leaders and associations, ALEC creates the platform for both groups to connect, share public policy needs and shape model legislation by drafting bill language that state legislatures can use.
ALEC has two governing bodies: 23 members on a private industry board filled with leaders from fields in criminal justice, telecommunications, healthcare, insurance, energy and more; and 23 public officials from across the country on the group’s board of directors. Model legislation is formed and passed through these governing bodies, which work together as a clearinghouse with the aim of protecting and expanding a free society.
Newt Gingrich visits with Jerry Watson and American
Bail Coalition President, Bill Carmichael.
Among private businesses such as the bail industry, the opportunity to reach out to public officials through ALEC and discuss ground-breaking issues is like no other in the country. According to Alan Smith, Executive Director of the organization that pushes to advance Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government and individual liberty, “There are very few organizations that formally make policy approved by public and private vote. There are avenues of access for private business to reach public officials, but hardly a place where they can sit shoulder-to-shoulder like this.”James Epperson, Jr., Senior Vice President of AT&T, commented that, at the same time, ALEC creates an environment to debate and analyze issues. Because of that, policies approved by the organization are nationally acclaimed. “Other lawmakers can be assured it has been debated and analyzed from every angle,” said Epperson, who shaped model legislation to create competition in the cable TV business. “And that it really is good policy.”
ALEC members have tackled massive national issues. They developed the first comprehensive response to frivolous litigation, they’ve created policies on medical savings accounts, and they’ve responded to efforts to regulate the telecommunications industry.
Because the bail industry operates in a smaller public arena, membership in ALEC provides a huge opportunity to share their stories and make impressions on policy makers.
For example, Alan Smith, ALEC’s Executive Director, has become more informed about bail because of Watson and other bond officials who are members of ALEC. They’ve taught Smith and others in the group how the business works and the tremendous role it plays in the overburdened criminal justice system. It’s a crucial relationship for the industry, which can otherwise be overlooked by state officials and overshadowed by other state needs. “State legislators every day hear about education, transportation, healthcare and the environment. They don’t hear about bail,” said Smith. “It’s not widely debated, but it should be, and in ALEC it can be, and is.”
The bail industry fits well with ALEC’s principles and conservative belief in limited government.
According to Michael Bowman, ALEC’s Director of Policy and Strategic Initiatives, ALEC uses qualified industry executives and staff to assist states by doing the field work that the government does not have the staff to do.
While this private-sector industry is extremely successful in getting defendants to court for disposition of their cases; when it does not accomplish this, the full amount of the bail must be paid to the court resulting in significant new revenue to the states.
Many members in the organization are stunned to learn the significant role bail quietly plays in the country. “With bail, ALEC now has a component that was missing in its criminal justice work. It was not a part of the public discourse,” said Bowman. “The partnership has been beneficial for everyone.”
After serving for two years as chairman of ALEC’s Private Enterprise Board, Watson concluded that work in December. An ALEC member for 15 years, he will still sit on the board as the Immediate Past Chairman and a representative of the American Bail Coalition, a representative of what is now a well identified industry inside ALEC. In his new role as Immediate Past Chairman, Watson will continue to serve on the executive committee, serve as chair of the board’s nominating committee and as a mentor to the new chair, James Epperson, Jr. “I’m actually very excited about assuming the role of Immediate Past Chairman,” Watson said. “I’m hoping that my service will enable us to reap significant legislative rewards for our industry over the next couple of years.”
During ALEC’s four-day conference in Washington, D.C., Watson was recognized for his years of service as Chairman with a bronze bust of Thomas Jefferson and a portrait of himself. Arkansas State Senator, Steve Faris, also presented Watson with the Arkansas Traveler award, an honor reserved for people who reside outside of Arkansas but contribute to the state’s well being. “Nobody is kinder than Jerry Watson,” said Faris. “And nobody fits the mold of the ambassador of kindness like Jerry Watson does.” Faris described Watson as “the best kind of leader,” one who gets the job done effectively with a pure heart and with an even hand. He said he’ll cherish his friendship with Watson long after he leaves politics.
Others who have worked with Watson during his years with ALEC see him as a teacher and leader in issues relating to the criminal justice system, one they can turn to for more information and for a deeper insight on the bail industry. Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Bill Howell, who also serves as ALEC’s National Chairman, said Watson has been a role model and calming influence for him during his many years with ALEC. “It’s hard to say at my age that I have a mentor,” said the 65-year-old Howell. “But I do. Jerry is mine.”
Dennis Bartlett, Executive Director of the American Bail Coalition, based in Washington, D.C., said the bail industry would never have received the high level of exposure it gets from policy makers today without Watson and ALEC. For example, when the bail industry came under attack by some officials in the 1990s who hoped to uproot the industry and replace it with government agencies, membership in ALEC was crucial for commercial bail leaders, who were able to reach out to public officials in the group about their struggle and assail the opposition. “Now the opposition’s argument is toothless,” Bartlett said.
Through the years, Watson and other commercial bail industry leaders have successfully developed model legislation to protect the business. Examples include: limiting credit card companies from entering into the bail business, keeping pre-trial release records available to the public to show how many times a person has jumped bail and added protection to bail recovery agents after five intruders in 1997 masqueraded as bounty hunters and murdered a couple in Arizona.
Watson played a key role in the favorable outcome of these policies and others because of his ability to articulate a problem and craft a resolution. “Jerry can sort out a problem on the spot,” Bartlett said. “He is very, very gifted at that.”
Bill Raggio, Nevada Senate Minority Floor Leader, says working through ALEC and with Watson taught him about the urgency for post-conviction bond legislation to help states grappling with exploding prison populations. In the United States, 2.3 million people sit behind bars in state and federal penitentiaries. That staggering figure comes from three decades of get-tough-on-crime laws. Now state and federal leaders are scrambling for solutions to deal with the number of inmates. Raggio has suggested that the Nevada Department of Corrections consider post-conviction bonds. The program would help provide money for the state at a time when budgets are being slashed. “It’s a good program for inmates,” Raggio said, “and it provides the state with additional revenue.”
Jerry Watson with Bill Howell, Speaker of the
Virginia House & ALEC Legislative Board Chairman
Wisconsin Representative Phil Montgomery, who serves as secretary to ALEC’s Board of Directors, said Watson serves as a valuable resource for legislatures about the bail industry. He regularly turns to Watson for advice and information on bail-related issues affecting Wisconsin. In addition, bail industry leaders have taken time to carve out a relationship with the Wisconsin state assembly – a professional gesture that commercial bail agents should consider with their legislators, Montgomery said. “The best thing you can do is build a relationship with your legislator when you don’t need anything,” Montgomery said. “That is the most crucial time so when you do need something, they can be a resource.”
Dan Lederman, a South Dakota Representative, already has that advantage nailed down. He worked in the bail bond industry for 15 years before running for State Assembly. He keeps a close watch on commercial bail policy through his ALEC membership and sits on the Bail Bond Subcommittee with Watson. After listening to Watson’s recent post-conviction bail presentation, Lederman was impressed.
In his view, the two bonuses Watson proposed that states would get from bond violators would be a significant benefit to states drowning in debt and seeing less money rolling in. “It would save South Dakota valuable tax dollars,” said Lederman. “That’s what we need right now.”
Joining Lederman and ALEC from the bail industry is 23-year-old newcomer Justin P. Burr, recently elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives. Burr comes from three generations of bail agents and received his license at age 20. He began working for the business his grandfather established in the 1950s and belongs to the North Carolina Bail Agents Association, which fights against legislation that could harm the industry.
First in his family to join ALEC, Burr considers the organization a place to learn how other states treat the bail industry and a way to educate members about the industry’s benefits. “I can look for good ideas here and share some with others,” Burr said. “More than anything, I’m looking to see how other states handle bail.”
Unquestionably, valuable relationships and important lines of communication have been established between ALEC and America’s commercial bail industry. Each recognizes their reciprocal value to each other. Leaders of both institutions say the bail industry is an excellent object lesson for industries, large and small, that are not yet ALEC private-sector members.
Speaking for the commercial bail industry, Jerry Watson said, “There is no way to accurately evaluate the benefits thus far to our industry by our involvement in ALEC. Any business interested in free markets and limited government involvement in private business can find no better home than ALEC.”
Asked about his feelings on having just completed his two-year term as ALEC’s Private Enterprise Board Chairman, Watson said, “It has been the most rewarding experience in my forty years in bail. The legislators and private industry executives with whom I have worked are extremely competent and dedicated individuals. To be able to call them friends is rewarding enough, and to have a continuing working relationship is a very large bonus indeed.”
Watson continued, “I am very grateful to AIA for financing the cost of my time spent working in ALEC. And I am thankful for other bail industry executives who have touched ALEC. I know for certain that many of America’s opinion leaders have, as a result of ALEC, a much higher opinion today of the value of our industry to the public safety interests of America’s citizenry. ALEC and commercial bail are a great team. I’m proud to be a small part of that.”
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