Bondsmen: Pockets being picked by pre-trial program

First Posted: 1/15/2009

County officials point toward savings

LUMBERTON - Bail bondsmen say a county program that keeps some criminal suspects out of jail has put them and their business in handcuffs.
The bondsmen argue that the county's pre-trial release program, which keeps nonviolent offenders out of jail so they can work, cuts into the pool of defendants who would otherwise come to them for money to post bail.
Terry Smith, co-owner of Bail Bonding Services on Sanchez Drive, said that the goal of the program - saving the county the $32.50 a day it costs to keep an offender in jail - is reasonable. Officials say the program has saved the county an estimated $490,000 this year, and is on pace to reach $1 million in savings during the next fiscal year.
But Smith doesn't think government should be competing with private businesses.
&#8220Is the county manager going to open up his own bank?” Smith said. &#8220But they are willing to get in our arena with our tax money. To have to compete with government money is not in line with how this country was founded.”
Smith said his business saves the county money, too.
&#8220Bonding is the largest pre-trial program in North Carolina,” he said. &#8220Last year, this company alone saved the county $3.5 million.”
Sam Kerns, pre-trial release program director, said the pre-trial program and the bail bonding business aren't in competition. Kerns said the county program is focused mainly on cases that bail bondsmen won't or can't process, like a defendant in jail for failing to pay child support. Bail bondsmen are not allowed by state law to take child support cases. Sixty-nine of the 110 pre-trial release defendants are child support cases, Kerns said.
&#8220People are getting out on pre-trial that bail bondsmen weren't touching,” he said. &#8220There will be a very small conflict. Bail bondsmen who object find it does not hurt small businesses.”
Kerns said the program is &#8220extremely selective.” Defendants must undergo a thorough screening and, if approved, wear an ankle bracelet. Only about 25 percent of all eligible defendants have been accepted to date. Defendants must work to pay restitution or child support or get an education. Those who fail to do so are rearrested.
Smith, served on a committee that helped devise guidelines for the program, and initially supported the idea.
He said the plan the committee came up with required a defendant to be in jail for 15 days before being considered for the pre-trial program. But about six months into the program, the waiting period was dropped to five days.
&#8220I was willing to live with the guidelines we came up with,” Smith said. &#8220But (Kerns) didn't call the ad hoc committee and made several changes to the charter … it was done underhandedly.”
Martha Smith, who co-owns Bail Bond Services, said that five days is not enough time for a defendant to secure a bond.
&#8220You've got to allow the person's family to contact you,” she said. &#8220It might take two, three, four days to get up with you, and then four days to get the money together.”
Kerns said the waiting period was reduced to save money. Defendants in jail for 15 days must undergo a costly health screening. Superior Court Judge Robert Floyd and District Court Judge Stanley Carmical, who also served on the committee, each signed off on the change, Kerns said.
&#8220If one could get out before 15 days, the savings would be much greater,” Kerns said. &#8220If I were a bondsman, I wouldn't want any competing pre-trial release program. But frankly, it's too costly not to try alternative strategies.”
Bondsmen aren't the only ones having problems with the pre-trial release program.
Katherine Floyd, county animal cruelty investigator, said some defendants should do their time. She said a man she charged with dog fighting went to court and was given 36 months probation and ordered to pay $2,040 in restitution.
Two months later, the man hadn't paid a penny and he was re-arrested for other legal trouble, Floyd said.
&#8220He gets into jail and pre-trial release gets him out,” she said. &#8220The boy was out free and chose not to pay restitution. What makes you think he'll pay now?”
The man had no health problems or children to provide for, she said.
&#8220A lot of times making people stay in jail makes them think twice,” she said.

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