Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Political connections keep bail bondsmen from paying full freight

An editorial in the Dallas News criticizes county officials for failing to collect fees and interest from local bail bondsmen (an issue also recently exposed in Houston). The story opens:
Dallas County government is the gang that can’t shoot straight when it comes to bond forfeitures.

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.
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."

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.


EdwardM said...

So then, each arrest that demands a bond for the arrested to leave the county jail provides a lucrative opportunity for the bondsman community. And without much oversight. That's ripe for opportunities for the less than ethical now isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: The bail bond system has little to do with criminal justice or public safety and everything to do with money.

Anonymous said...

To add to your last paragraph...the federal system no longer uses commercial bail, states are the only ones left who do.

I know in some counties, at least in the past, when a person failed to show up for court the bondsman was allowed to go off the bond, essentially making the whole process pointless. Some counties never required bondsmen to make good on their bonds so it was a no risk business, they couldn't lose. I don't know if that's still the case today.

Add to that the fact that some judges use bonds as punishment, clearly in violation of the law and the constitution.

I recall a Smith County scandal a few years back where one of the local bondsman was taking sheriff's department officials on gambling trips and was found to be giving other gifts to jailers. Not surprisingly this same bondsman was getting most of the business until the other bondsmen sued. So, yes, the current system is conducive to corruption. I wonder how many judges are getting kickbacks for setting high bonds?

Anonymous said...

The most fucked up thing about it is that a loser who's been to jail numerous times is actually on the board.

EastTexan said...

Every time there is a scandal concerning criminal justice, Smith County always shows up somewhere in the article or comments. LOL

Anonymous said...

This does not happen in every county. If it does I don't agree with their policy etc. I'm a bondsmen in Travis County and we have to pay up if not we are out of business...simple as that. The county makes money from us (it's part of our biz). The bondsmen are the only ones in the criminal justice system that have to pay if we do not perform. The bondsmen can not just get off the bond if the person failed to appear. We are still responsible for getting the client back in jail.

titfortat said...

The problem with Grits way of thinking is that he tends to leave out a few facts like(everything government) comes with an extremely high price-tag; in this particular case it also comes at the cost of losing a great deal of freedom along with adding a great deal of government (control), what a comforting thought.

The Government takeover of everything lost its luster almost immediately after the hope and change posters came down and “We the people,” by a very large margin want less Government and more freedom, and if its not asking too much we would like to keep our taxes and our jobs too.