- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2010

RICHMOND — A bill quietly rolling through the General Assembly would put an end to what supporters call taxpayer-funded get-out-of-jail-free passes for criminals who can afford to pay their own bail. Opponents argue it is nothing more than a ploy by bail bondsmen to increase profits.

Commercial bail bondsmen are pushing the measure to limit pretrial services, where the state pays for criminals to be released before their court hearing, to only those offenders who cannot afford to post their own bond. They argue tax dollars should not be used to bail out those who can afford to pay their own way or to compete with private business.

Pretrial-services supporters say that freedom shouldn’t depend on someone’s ability to pay and that their programs save the state and local governments money because it’s cheaper than housing minor offenders in overcrowded jails.

The bill passed out of the House last month on a 63-36 vote. The Senate Courts of Justice Committee, which killed a similar measure earlier in the session, could consider the bill on Wednesday.

Pretrial-services supporters say they fear legislators will reverse course amid pressure by supporters of the bill, who are running commercials statewide and touting the bill as a way to save the state millions as lawmakers frantically try to reconcile a $4 billion state budget shortfall.

“Schools are facing devastating cuts. Medicaid is facing devastating cuts, and here we have people being released who should be paying their own way,” said Pat Edmonson, a lobbyist for Virginians for the Preservation of Bail.

During the fiscal year that ended in June, more than 17,900 of the 50,250 criminals considered for pretrial release were set free. Of those, 89 percent were indigent, according to Pretrial and Community Correction Case Management System.

That means only 11 percent could have afforded to pay their own bond and would have to if the bill passes.

The state’s budget office said the change could save the state about $400,000 per year, but that could be offset by increased costs to jails, which receive state funding.

It costs the state an average of $4.37 each day for an offender to be released on pretrial services, compared to $28.63 per day for the state plus $37.34 by the locality to house a defendant in jail, according to the Virginia Community Criminal Justice Association.

“This is all about the bondsmen wanting to increase their customer base,” said Dave Pastors, director of the pretrial services agency in Staunton. “They’re not really concerned about jail overcrowding or jail populations.”

Virginia’s population of offenders awaiting trial in local jails has decreased from 49 percent before pretrial services started operating in 1994 to 28 percent today, Mr. Pastors said. That has cut into the number of potential clients for the state’s 380 bondsmen, he said.

“They see this as a threat,” Mr. Pastors said. “Their focus isn’t on public safety or whether this would be saving money for the commonwealth.”

Pretrial-services supporters say the bill would remove options for judges and divide defendants into two classes based on money.

“We have a lot of concern about people being denied freedom just based on their ability to pay,” said Pat Smith, director of a pretrial agency in Charlottesville.

Pretrial-services investigators interview each defendant, taking into account his criminal history, the risk he poses to the community and other factors, and make a recommendation to a judge, who releases the person his own recognizance (meaning with a simple promise to appear in court), sets a bond or denies bail.

If the person can’t afford a bond that is set, he can hire a bail bondsman, who will post the bond for a 10 percent nonrefundable fee. As a safety net, bondsmen require someone — usually a family member or friend — to vouch for the defendant and be liable if he doesn’t show up for court.

With pretrial services, the defendant pays nothing, so he has nothing to lose by skipping court, bondsmen argue. Pretrial services are offered in about 80 of Virginia’s 134 localities.

“We make sure our defendants stand before their accuser; pretrial services don’t,” said Brian Cole, who owns bail bonding companies in Virginia and surrounding states.

Mr. Cole said he takes offense at opponents’ argument that bondsmen are only concerned about profit.

“Of course I’m in a business to make money just like anybody else who owns a company, but we also help a lot of people, too,” he said.

The rivalry between the two groups has been brewing for years, egged on by hard economic times that have state and local lawmakers looking for big chunks to cut from their budgets and private businesses searching for any way to maintain profits.

The battle began in Florida, when the Broward County Commission severely restricted the sheriff’s pretrial services program in 2009 only six months after expanding it because of intense lobbying from bail bondsmen.

Bondsmen now are taking what they learned there and pushing bills across the nation to limit pretrial services. Meanwhile, the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies has called for the abolition of bail bondsmen.

Bondsmen said they believe that the two can work together but that pretrial services should be reserved for the indigent.

“We’re simply saying that if a person can afford to pay their own bond, then they should,” Ms. Edmonson said. “It shouldn’t fall to the taxpayer.”

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