Dallas County government is the gang that can’t shoot straight when it comes to bond forfeitures.DMN editorial writers say no one will claim credit for the decision not to charge full fees to bail bondsmen: "To be clear, this is no matter of tracking down a decades-old paper trail in some dusty warehouse. This change was made a few short years ago, presumably with the consent of county officials who are still in office today."
The county has failed to collect millions in unpaid court judgments, doesn’t bother to assess interest on forfeited bonds and charges bondsmen bargain-basement rates for an assortment of court fees.
The common thread that knits these many missteps together? The county’s errors in judgment all favor the bail bondsmen. They get off easy in Dallas County and have little incentive to pay up when criminal suspects they’ve gotten out of jail fail to show for court.
The obvious result: Dallas County has short-changed itself, bypassing revenues that other counties routinely collect.
Questions about the problem-plagued process have been met with a collective shrug, as county officials seem to learn about their own bond-forfeiture system from this newspaper.
The latest revelation — that bail bondsmen pay significantly less in fees than allowed by law — was news to a number of county officials. Several now say they support raising court costs and charging interest on forfeited bonds.
That’s encouraging, but no one seems accountable for the questionable decisions that led us to this point.
Among Dallas officials, though, County Commissioner John Wiley Price appears to be the central figure for setting bail bond policy. Last month the Dallas Observer reported on the local bail bond board, concluding that Price was the main decisionmaker in the group: "Anybody watching could come to only one conclusion: It doesn't matter who's the titular chairman of the bail bond board. The board belongs to Price." The feds recently launched a corruption investigation into Price's activities and finances, and one wonders if the inquiry includes bail-bond related activities, which have sometimes been a source of corruption elsewhere in the state.
Price isn't the only one, though, who wasn't minding the store while Dallas bondsmen failed to pay millions owed to the county. Columnist Jacquielyn Floyd added that "The district attorney’s office, currently headed by former bail bondsman Craig Watkins, doesn’t even seem to have a list of written procedures on how to handle bail forfeiture cases."
Bail bonds are a tertiary issue at best in the minds of the public and the press, which is why an industry that exhibits so much power in county politics can routinely fly under radar, even as their political connections keep them from paying required fees or being held accountable when their clients don't show up in court. As Floyd wrote, "writing bail bonds in Dallas County is a terrific gig. Routine costs are low, risks are negligible, and regulatory oversight is virtually nonexistent. The occasional sharp question about why the system is such a mess gets shrugged off in a shuffling dance about outdated records, lousy computer programs and rules drafted by some forgotten prior administration."
The United States is among the last countries in the world to still use commercial bail, and the shadowy if lucrative relationship between the bail bond business and county officials in the criminal justice system likely explains why this anachronistic industry continues to thrive here.
MORE: From the Dallas News (8/17), the county will soon be raising fees charged to bail bondsmen and place more emphasis on collecting them:
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and county commissioners on Tuesday praised plans by the district clerk to raise court costs and other fees assessed to bail bondsmen when their clients fail to appear in court.
District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons told commissioners he will raise court costs for felony bond-forfeiture actions from about $130 a case to $278 beginning Sept. 1.
And County Clerk John Warren said he also plans to raise court costs to allowable levels in misdemeanor court and will brief the commissioners about it soon.