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Ballot proposal would make it harder to get out of jail free

August 20, 2010

An initiative making its way toward the November ballot could increase bail bondsmen’s profits while making it harder for defendants to be released on their own recognizance.

Initiative 92, as the measure is called, would allow only defendants charged with a nonviolent, first offense to be released on an unsecured bond to a pretrial services program.

If approved by voters, the measure could increase the time that defendants spend in jail and boost the statewide costs for local jails by $2.8 million a year, according to an analysis by the Colorado Legislative Council, the nonpartisan research arm of the state General Assembly.

The backers of the initiative earlier this month submitted more than 170,000 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. Approximately 76,000 valid signatures are needed for a measure to be certified for the ballot. The Secretary of State’s Office has not completed the certification process.

The  two proponents of Initiative 92, Matthew Duran and M Paul Donovan, listed Colorado Springs as their address, according to the Secretary of State’s website. The measure is also being promoted statewide by an organization called Safe Streets Colorado.

Bobby Brown, a Colorado Springs bail bondsman, said  in an interview last week that he contributed “thousands”  to help with the signature-gathering effort. “I worked really hard on this,” he said.

The proposed initiative wouldn’t affect defendants in El Paso County because the pretrial services program was eliminated several years ago due to budget cuts. But the measure would affect 10 pretrial services programs throughout the state that serve over 70 percent of the state’s population, according to the Legislative Council.

Those programs assess defendants and provide information to the court regarding their risk to public safety and the likelihood that they’ll show up in court, two primary factors in determining what type of bond to set and how high.

The pretrial services programs also provide community-based supervision to defendants charged with less serious crimes. Failure to comply with certain conductions may result in a defendant being returned to jail.

Supporters of the initiative say the measure is needed in order to prevent the release of “dangerous, violent criminals” from jail without posting a secure bond. But opponents say dangerous criminals are not generally released on unsecured bonds.

The underlying goal of  the measure appears to be aimed at reining in state-funded pretrial services programs and to protect the bail-bond industry, interviews with both sides suggest.

“It seems to have a monetary push rather than a public safety push,” said Joe Ferrando, director of Larimer County’s community corrections program. “It increases the number of surety bonds that will be needed, which is a big boost for the bail bond folks.”

Brown countered by saying that people involved in the pretrial services programs are trying to eliminate the bail bond industry. If the initiative fails, he added, it could mean the “end of bail bonds in the state of Colorado.”

“We provide a tremendous service that a lot of people don’t realize,” Brown added. ”Once we post a bond, we are guaranteeing that we will bring that person back to court.”

 The Legislative Council said Initiative 92 is “unnecessary” because pretrial services programs are effective in making sure defendants appear in court. Kirk Samelson, chief judge for the 4th Judicial District, which includes El Paso and Teller counties, agreed. “National studies show that people who are on a personal recognizance bond and are supervised have a higher rate of appearance than people on cash bonds,” he said.

The Legislative Council also pointed out that the initiative would have a disproportionate effect on the poor.

“The measure also unfairly burdens the poor because it will likely result in poorer defendants being jailed while awaiting trial and wealthier defendants being released, even if the defendants have been charged with the same type of crime,” it stated.

With more defendants languishing in jail, local communities could be forced to expand their facilities. “The increase in demand for local jails could result in a need for building additional jail beds in the future,” the researchers added.

Cash bond: Defendant puts up cash to cover total cost of bond.

Personal recognizance bond: Defendant released from jail after promising to appear for court date. No money paid up front.

Surety bond: Professional bail bondsman posts bond. Often bondsman requires collateral and assesses 15 percent fee.

Property bond: Family members post property greater than value of bond. The court retains legal title and can sell property if defendant fails to appear for court date.

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