- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Allowing the bail bond industry to double the fee it charges defendants in North Dakota would help free up jail space because the state’s current cap often is too low to get the business of bondsmen, a state senator told fellow lawmakers Wednesday.

“Essentially, they need to make enough money to make it worthwhile to do this,” Republican Sen. Kelly Armstrong, a Dickinson defense attorney, told the House Judiciary Committee.

Armstrong, a Dickinson defense attorney, is the primary sponsor of a bill that would allow bail bondsmen to double their fee to $150 or up to 20 percent of the amount of the bail furnished, whichever is greater.

The legislation also would allow bondsmen to charge for mileage reimbursement when they have to travel to post bail for a criminal defendant. The current law doesn’t allow that.

The Senate unanimously passed the measure last month. The House panel gave the bill a “do-pass” recommendation on Wednesday. The full House will debate it later.

Bail bondsmen pay cash bonds to secure the release of people jailed on criminal charges in exchange for a promise to show up for the next court hearing. Bondsman must post the entire bail amount if the defendant flees and can’t be found. A defendant pays a nonrefundable fee to a bondsman and often must put up collateral, as well.

There are 62 bail bondsmen in North Dakota, according the state Insurance Department, which licenses them.

Dan Lederman, a state senator from South Dakota who also runs a bail bonding business, told the North Dakota House committee that his company operates in five states, including North Dakota. He said North Dakota is the only state where his company operates that limits the amount of fees that a bondsman can charge.

North Dakota has not changed its fee since 2003, when the Legislature raised it from $50 to $75. Lederman said the typical bond amount set by a judge in North Dakota is between $1,000 and $1,500.

Lederman said raising the fee would help decrease jail populations and help companies hire and retain agents. His company has four agents in North Dakota at present.

“It’s really hard to get an agent out of bed at 2 o’clock in the morning to go down to the jail for $75,” he said.

North Dakota’s robust economy has led to a record population, the lowest unemployment rate in the nation and thousands of more jobs than job-takers. But the rapid change brought on by the oil boom has also brought plenty of problems, including more crime and increasingly overcrowded prison and jail cells.

“A lot of people are coming from a lot of different places and some of them get into trouble,” Armstrong said.

Lawmakers, judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials have been looking at ways to free up limited lockup space without compromising public safety in North Dakota for the past several years, including alternatives to incarceration such as enhanced treatment and rehabilitation programs for nonviolent criminal offenders.

Armstrong said the legislation will help solve the problem.

“This is a different take on jail overcrowding,” he said.

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