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OUR VIEW: Politicians want public to pay for bail (vote on it)

By: Wayne Laugesen
April 18, 2011
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We do not need another government takeover of another private industry.

In the midst of recession and general public uncertainty, SB186 would put our local courthouses in the bail-bonding business. It could easily put taxpaying bond agents, who employ thousands of taxpayers throughout Colorado, right out of business. Even worse, suspects who are free on bond would also be free from a bonding agent with a financial incentive to bring them to justice. (Read the bill, read the fiscal note)

SB186 may be the worst bill to emerge from the 2011 General Assembly, and The Gazette hopes it won’t survive the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

“It is a government solution to a system that’s not broken,” said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who serves on the appropriations committee and plans to oppose the bill. “I’m concerned about conflicts of interest this would create. Judges and prosecutors should not also run the bail system.”

The bill would allow a judicial district to post the bond for a suspect, with the defendant paying interest to the courts instead of a bonding agent. At a bond rate of 15 percent, a suspect with a $10,000 bond would pay the court $1,500 in return for freedom. Half the money would pay for pretrial services, such as drug tests and monitoring services, and half could be returned to the suspect upon completion of the case. If convicted, the remaining money would pay fines, fees, costs, surcharges and restitution.

The Gazette spoke with a variety of the bill’s supporters, who each believe it would create an additional option for suspects to get out of jail. We think they are mistaken. The Gazette believes SB186 would quickly establish a state monopoly, leaving suspects at the mercy of a system that sets bail, posts bail and profits from bail.

“This puts us out of business,” said Bobby Brown, an El Paso County resident who may be the country’s best-known bail bondsman.

The Gazette spoke with Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, who sponsors a House version of the Bill. We spoke with El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, who supports SB186. We also spoke with Christie Donner, of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, who supports it. All are trusted sources respected by The Gazette. None could assure us the proposed system would reduce jail populations. None convinced us it would not destroy a private system that serves Colorado effectively. None convinced us the new system would work better than what we have. They just kinda-sorta think it’s a good idea.

Under the current system, suspects go through the yellow pages and find an array of lenders eager to post bond for a fee. Bonding agents routinely make creative deals that result in lower rates, because most suspects cannot come up with 10 percent or 15 percent of a bond. They allow suspects to use collateral in lieu of cash. They assume the risk, and have every incentive to make sure suspects show up in court on time. They travel coast-to-coast to rein in suspects who skip court dates, protecting their reputations and investments.

(Vote in poll to the right in red type. Must vote to see results. Thanks.)

If SB186 puts private agents out of business, the burden of bailed-out suspects becomes the public’s. We will be left with 9-to-5 public employees to ensure that suspects appear in court. These employees will have nothing to lose when suspects skip court, because they will have nothing invested.

We will likely have more suspects who cannot make bail in the first place. By state law, the courts will be able to charge defendants up to 15 percent of a bond and it’s unlikely our judicial employees will jump through hoops — as agents in the hyper-competitive private market do — to free defendants from jail. Public employees will make no more, no less if a suspect sits behind bars or goes free. Private agents, by contrast, profit from the release of suspects. That means they work hard to make it happen.

Colorado cannot afford a risky foray into government bail-bonding, especially one that’s likely to kill a private industry that protects our interests and feeds thousands of taxpaying Colorado families. The system is not broken. Do not take chances with a flaky bill that attempts to fix it, with the potential of dire consequences.

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