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County ready to put financial squeeze on people who jump bail

Soon those who post bail for people accused of crimes in Washington County stand to lose a lot more money if the person they bailed out skips court.

Beginning Sept. 1, county circuit court judges will collect the full amount of set bail - technically referred to as 'security' - when a defendant fails to appear for a scheduled court appearance.

When defendants are released from the county jail on bail, the court requires them to post only 10 percent of the set amount. In the past, if a defendant didn't show up in court, 10 percent was all he or his family or friends forfeited.

Although state law requires the court to try and collect the remaining 90 percent of the set bail amount, Washington County's Circuit Court hasn't historically put the resources into doing that.

'We've just been taking the 10 percent happily and forfeiting the rest because a lot of defendants don't have nickels to rub together,' said Trial Court Administrator Richard Moellmer. 'In most cases, they are the same defendants who have previously been determined by the court to be indigent.'

However, after answering questions recently from a local radio news producer, Washington County judges decided to change their ways. The court is putting together the paperwork, and changing its public notices - despite practical concerns about the benefits of the collection process.

'These are people who have no resources,' Moellmer said. 'To appoint (them) lawyers on one hand and then to turn around and shock them with tens of thousands of dollars in security judgments seems like a lot of effort with little payoff.'

But while the defendants may not pay in the end, the change at the court could leave more vulnerable those who help the defendants out - the grandmas, girlfriends, fathers and the mothers; the ones with property and assets or a savings account.

If they post the 10 percent bail and lose it, they will now also be held liable for the larger debt.

The Circuit Court did not have numbers readily available on the amount of security forfeited during the last two years or the number of defendants who failed to appear after posting bail.

However, in a sample of 313 cases pulled by Moeller from 2004 and 2005, 78 defendants failed to appear in court and forfeited their 10 percent security. Of those 78, 25 percent of the defendants were charged with felonies and 16 percent were charged with misdemeanors.

For those 313 cases, about $9 million was set for bail by judges (ranging for most defendants between $10,000 and $20,000). More than $175,000 was forfeited when the defendants failed to appear in court.

Security money collected by the court goes to the state's general fund, minus 15 percent for the court's administrative fees.

Gayle Nachtigal, a Circuit Court judge, said she doesn't expect the news will deter those who post bail for defendants.

'I don't think most people when they post really believe they'll lose the 10 percent,' she said. 'Otherwise they wouldn't give the money in the first place.'

Even with the change, she said, 'they're still going to genuinely believe the person will do what they're supposed to do and that their money isn't at risk.'