July 24--Early inmate releases throughout the state have more than just frustrated law enforcement and put residents on edge. They have hammered the bail bond industry.
Jails have turned into an "incarceration drive-through," said John Bench, vice president of Absolute Bail Bonds, which operates 17 locations statewide, including one in Modesto.
Bench, who is president of the Golden State Bail Agents Association, estimates that the industry statewide has suffered a 50 percent decrease in overall bonds written in the past 18 months.
Jail bed caps, budget constraints and now the state's prison realignment plan, which has low-level inmates serving sentences in county jails instead of prison, are contributing to more people being released on their recognizance. That means they don't have to pay to get out of jail, and no one has a financial stake in ensuring they show up for court appearances.
In Stanislaus County, only judges can decide if people are released on their recognizance, but in other counties, pretrial services officers can help speed the process to ease jail crowding.
In Fresno, jail records show that 40 to 60 inmates are being released early each day, a trend that started in 2010 as jail capacity shrank.
At Lucky Bail Bonds in Fresno, owner Barry Pearlstein said business is down 60 percent over the past four years. Albert Ramirez Jr. said business at Albert Ramirez Bail Bonds is half what it was in 2008.
Bill Peters of Stockton-based Bill's Bail Bonds said that as a small-business owner, he has suffered even more. He said business has decreased by 80 percent in the past few years. Serving mostly Stockton and Modesto, Peters recently has had to expand to stay afloat, taking cases anywhere he can get them, including the Bay Area and foothills.
The reason is simple: If inmates are being released because of a crowded jail, they don't need to post bail. Without bail, there is little need for a bail bond agent.
Vera Robles-Dewitt, owner of Carson Bail Bonds and president of the California Bail Agents Association, said her private-sector industry takes on the responsibility for an accused criminal to appear in court. Without bail, she and other bail bond agents said, there is less incentive for people to show up for a court date.
"There's no accountability," said Mark Garcia, a Stanislaus County resident who owns Garcia Family Bail Bonds. "There's no consequences. We are set up for a real rude awakening here in the next 10 years" as the children of criminals see that "crime does pay."
Furthermore, Bench said, "We are the only part of the criminal justice system that is not a cost to the taxpayers."
Typically, the bail process works like this: A person who has been arrested is booked and can post bail to be released from jail. That bail amount is set by a judge or by a document showing predetermined amounts for certain crimes.
For those unable to afford the bail, a bail bond company charges the suspect 10 percent -- sometimes 8 percent -- of the bail amount and, in return, puts up a surety bond for the entire amount, ensuring that the person makes all court appearances. The bail bond company collects collateral from the suspect's family to further ensure the person will make the court dates.
If the suspect makes all court hearings and the matter is concluded, the bond is cleared and the bail bond company keeps the 10 percent as its fee. If the person jumps bail, the bail bond company has 180 days to find him or her -- or be on the hook for the entire bail amount.
Because of jail crowding, however, many of those arrested, especially on low-level charges, are released from jail before having to post bail.
Misdemeanor clients gone
"Misdemeanor crime was at one time our bread and butter," Peters said. "But the misdemeanors are walking out of the jail now."
In Stanislaus County, few people suspected of misdemeanors make it to jail anymore. Lt. Brenda Suarez said the Sheriff's Department encourages deputies and officers in the county to cite and release anyone suspected of committing a misdemeanor because there is no room for them in the county's three jail facilities.
As bad as it is now, bail agents say it will get worse -- across the state -- as convicted criminals take up bed space in local jails under realignment.
When a bail bond is involved, Pearlstein said, fewer than 1 percent of those facing criminal charges fail to appear in court. And a bail bond business on the hook for the bail amount likely will employ a bounty hunter to track down someone who jumps bail.
If the bail bond industry isn't involved, Robles-Dewitt said, it likely will fall to law enforcement -- and, ultimately, taxpayers -- to track down those who fail to show up to court.
The industry is becoming hypercompetitive as bond companies compete for a smaller pool of clients. One option is cutting the fee -- 10 percent of the bond amount is common -- to 8 percent. And companies may be more willing to take on riskier clients with high bail and serious charges.
Garcia, who got his start at Albert Ramirez Bail Bonds in 1994, closed his Fresno office about five years ago because there wasn't enough business as the jail began releasing more defendants.
Bail bond agents are concerned about proposed bills coming in the Legislature. Among them is Senate Bill 210, which would expand the pool of suspects eligible to be released without bail to include those accused of felonies that, upon conviction, would be served in county jails instead of state prisons. To make such a ruling, a judge must find that the suspect is not a threat to the public.
However, if the judge decided bail was required because the person was a threat, the bill would require the judge to list the reasons.
And if a judge found that bail was needed, the bill would give him or her leeway to set the amount lower than what is listed for the crime.
Bail agents say it would increase the number of defendants being released from jail without bail while their cases work their way through the criminal justice system.
"We keep creating laws that make it easier to release people from custody and easier to empty out the jail because they are concerned with overcrowding," Pearlstein said. "What we are doing is defeating the whole purpose for having laws on the books."
Modesto Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2366.
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