No need for private bail bond system

Remember bounty hunters? From Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name” Westerns to Duane Chapman, aka Dog, the Bounty Hunter, we’ve seen them “bring them to justice.”

However, if Dog Chapman plied his trade in Wisconsin, he’d be arrested for kidnapping. In fact, bounty hunters would be arrested in most of the world except the Philippines — and the United States.

Bounty hunters work for commercial bail bonds companies, hunting down people who have posted bond and failed to appear in court. Statistics vary, but “failure to appear” rates hover around 25-33 percent in the U.S.

Compare that to rates in Milwaukee County: 16 percent, according to the county’s Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers, as reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel May 18. What’s different?

Wisconsin is one of four states that ban commercial bail bond. With the support of law enforcement, Wisconsin ended the practice in 1979. Instead, bail is administered by courts. Pretrial programs gather defendant information to help judges decide on flight risks and bail amounts.

However, under a late insertion to the 2013 budget bill, supported by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Wisconsin’s Legislature may reintroduce the commercial bail bond system in Wisconsin this year. (The Joint Finance Committee was meeting on the budget at press time; a full legislative budget vote is expected this month.)

Kremers was a prosecutor in 1979 and told the Journal Sentinel that he believes judges are in a better position to decide who to put back on the streets before trial than bondsmen. Under the proposed system, “the decision is no longer up to a judge; it’s up to some insurance type person who’s thinking, ‘Can I make money on this release?'” Kremers said. This approach “doesn’t tell us anything about how dangerous (defendants) are. It just tells us how much money they have or their family has.”

Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee), a former judge, championed bail reform in 1979. “Commercial bail bonds lead to corruption,” he told Madison’s Capitol Times in June 2011 (the last time this bail bond proposal was floated in the Legislature). “And corruption is why we did away with it.”

After 1979, Kessler added, “Wisconsin saw a 5-6 percent decrease in its jail population.”

In most states, the bail system works this way: a judge sets bail and a defendant pays a bondsman about 10 percent as insurance. If the defendant shows up for court, the bondsman keeps the money. Otherwise, the bondsman gives the money to the court. However, what usually happens is that the bondsman recoups some or all of the money from the court, while also keeping whatever collateral was posted by the defendant.

A bondsman also chooses when to offer bond — and naturally selects big cases with higher bonds. People accused of small crimes, who would need to post low bail, are of little interest to commercial bonds companies. However, petty criminals often can’t afford even that low bail and end up staying in jail. The cost to taxpayers for feeding and housing those waiting in jail was $9 billion in 2011, according to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and reported by the Justice Policy Institute.

In Wisconsin, however, defendants post bail to the court. It is refunded when they appear for their cases. If a defendant flees, the bail goes toward victim restitution and court costs. These are costs which taxpayers would again shoulder if commercial bail bond is reinstated. (And help pay bounty hunters.)

Wisconsin’s present system allows judges to decide who is a flight risk or public danger. It also allows people, even the most poor, to afford bail — since a judge weighs ability to pay into bail decisions. Costs are lower because fewer people are in jail at any given time.

The commercial bail bond system profits only private business — whose main interest is profit, not justice. Teamsternation blogspot (May 22) quoted Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm as saying that returning to commercial bail bonds “will primarily benefit out-of-state interests, the large bail-bond corporations” that charge high interest payment rates that “resemble the predatory practices of the cash loan industry.”

Remember: most people in jail 1) have not been convicted but are awaiting trial, and 2) are poor. In 2010, National Public Radio reported that half a million inmates sit in U.S. jails simply because they can’t make bail.

The Catholic Church opposes payday loans and rent-to-owns because they prey on the poor. Commercial bail bond also preys on the poor. If the system in Wisconsin works, for the poor, for taxpayers and for the justice system, why change it?