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Commercial bail can help Oregon

Two Views • Myths hurt bail bondsmen image; some say state doesn't need them
by: Christopher Onstott Vancouver, Wash., bail bondsman David Regan searches for a client who failed to appear in court and defaulted on his bail. If he cannot bring the client to court, Regan will owe the court the full default amount. Bail bondsmen such as Regan are not allowed to operate in Oregon.

Peter Korn's recent series hacked into a security hole in the state's criminal justice system: bail (Just funny money, April 14).

For more than three decades, Oregon's state-run bail system has left a legacy of one out of three defendants stiffing their court dates, cohorts of fugitives both from Oregon and from out-of-state drifting around Pioneer Square, and red ink running almost to $100 million from forfeitures never collected. Why this breakdown of the criminal justice system? One thing is sure: It can't be blamed on the commercial surety bail industry. Private bondsmen were kicked out of Oregon in 1974.

Is commercial bail the patch to fix Oregon's broken criminal justice system? No. But it can help.

Commercial bail would staunch failures to appear right up front. Out of every 100 defendants released on a secured bond, it is estimated by industry performance in 46 other states that eight will skip, and of this hand full, all but two eventually will be recovered.

Commercial bail is an insurance policy written in favor of the state. If the defendant does not appear and a forfeiture judgment is executed, commercial bail pays the amount of the bond.

For example, if the bond is $50,000, commercial bail pays $50,000 cash. And if the commercial bail entity does not pay, the license is revoked. Hence, there is a powerful financial incentive to recover the absconder, and if this fails, there is a stronger incentive to pay the forfeiture necessary to stay in business.

In contrast, in Oregon's current system, bail bonds are junk bonds. If the defendant absconds, the public is out 90 percent of the bond if the 10 percent system is used, and 100 percent if other methods like own recognizance are used.

Commercial bail's success rate

If commercial bail is so efficient in recovering fugitives, won't this clog up the already overcrowded jails? When they are on the loose, skips, of course, occupy no jail space. The problem arises when they are returned to custody. In the first place, there will be a lower number of skips. And some of these will be re-bonded out. Hence, this klatch of returned skips is more than offset by the numbers who will be not confined while awaiting trial.

Furthermore, the cost of recovering fugitives is borne solely by the bonding agent and not by the state.

Hence, commercial bail not only will not cost the state dollars, but also, in fact, will bring in new revenue through fees, forfeitures and premium taxes.

Replace pretrial services?

The reintroduction of commercial surety bail in Oregon would solely provide another resource available to the court for release of defendants pending trial. It does not replace the current system.

Dispelling myths against commercial bail

• Myth: Bail agents are accountable to no one. Truth: Bail agents sell an insurance product, a bail bond. At a minimum, agents have to meet the state's licensing and continuing education requirements. They have to comply with other regulations pursuant to business and professional codes. In addition they have to honor their contractual requirement with the courts and their insurance company on every bond they write.

• Myth: The bonding community makes money off the misfortunes of others. Truth: In this respect, commercial bonding is little different from physicians, judges, police, corrections officers, attorneys, mechanics, plumbers, laundries, Merrimaids, and technogeeks. • Myth: Bondsmen are low lifes. Truth: The commercial bonding profession suffers from a poor image problem due unflattering depictions in the media. Several decades ago, this image might have comported with reality. Today, however, commercial bonding is complex, demanding, and highly professionalized. It employs staffs of attorneys, accountants, insurance specialists, investigators, and IT personnel to track the status of millions of transactions.

Oregon asleep at the switch?

Not at all. For the past three years, the chairs of the Senate and House judiciary committees quietly have been holding hearings and work groups and have produced draft legislation for bringing back commercial bail in the state. The leading opponents are trial lawyers who want first crack at a defendant's cash. Where will this all end up? More on point, let's quote Peter Korn: '… does anybody care?'

Dennis Bartlett of Fairfax, Va., is executive director of the American Bail Association.