Bail laws fight looms

Bond industry building opposition to reform proposals

Loss of business feared

Legal expert hired to critique study calling for changes

October 30, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Fearing a devastating loss of business, the bail bond industry is attacking reform proposals that advocates say would protect poor defendants from being jailed unnecessarily.

Hundreds of suspects are kept in jail each year because they can't afford the 10 percent deposit bond companies require, according to the advocates, who plan to support legislation that would reduce or eliminate bail fees in many cases.

Now, two months before the General Assembly convenes, the bail bond industry is fighting back. Representatives of the Maryland Bail Bond Association, a loose affiliation of insurance companies and bail agents, have been meeting with judges and jail officials.

They also have hired a well-known law professor in hopes of refuting the findings of another well-known law professor; debated the topic on the radio; and proposed working with public agencies to reduce the number of inmates who can't afford small bails.

The industry is zeroing in on two recent reports prescribing changes in the state's pretrial release system. One was written by University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert, a longtime bail reform proponent. The other, which Colbert helped research and write, was compiled by a Court of Appeals committee.

Attorney Ira C. Cooke, who has been the bail bond association's lobbyist for more than 20 years, says he has never been this fired up publicly on behalf of his clients, evidence that they've never before felt this threatened.

"In the past, we didn't feel we had to strongly advocate our position," said Cooke, who recently debated Colbert on a radio program that was more shouting match than discussion. "Now we think it's necessary to set the record straight."

Brian J. Frank, president of Lexington National Insurance Corp., the largest bail bonds company in Maryland, said that when he read Colbert's report, "Honestly, I was irate over it. ... It lacks intellectual integrity."

He points to several places in Colbert's report where numbers and statistics appear to be wrong or questionable.

For instance, Colbert estimates the bail bond industry's revenues in 1998 were between $42.5 million and $170 million in Maryland. But his tally includes businesses such as Atlantic Bonding Co., which does not underwrite bail bonds in Maryland.

Frank estimates that the industry takes in far less than $40 million but does not have hard figures.

In addition, Colbert's report says bail bondsmen do not play a major role in tracking down "skips," defendants who jump bail by not showing up for court appearances. He notes statistics showing that in 1999, bail bondsmen surrendered to the court 211 defendants, about a sixth of the total who missed court dates.

But that number, taken from a state bail commissioner's report, refers not to "skips," but to "surrenders," defendants whom bondsmen believe will jump bail. In such cases, bondsmen turn in defendants, and bail money, to the court before a court date.

Questioned about these apparent errors, Colbert said quibbling about numbers misses the point. "Does it really matter if it's $30 million or $100 million?" he said of the industry's revenue. "The point is that people are paying money unnecessarily out of pocket."

Colbert said gathering information for his report was very difficult, which in his view underscores the need to further regulate the industry and court practices.

But mistakes in Colbert's research could play to the bail bond association's advantage. That's why Frank, on behalf of the association, is paying University of Baltimore law professor Byron L. Warnken $245 an hour to analyze Colbert's report, funded by a $77,000 Abell Foundation grant.

Warnken said his report should be finished within a week or two.

Colbert's report made nine recommendations. The first is that Maryland should expand the investigative arm of its pretrial release system so that commissioners and judges have more, and accurate, information about each defendant before setting bail.

The other recommendations, directly or indirectly, would probably erode the commercial bail bond business by having lawyers present at bail hearings or by significantly increasing judges' reliance on other forms of bail.

What alarms Frank and others most is the possibility that judicial officers would regularly use unsecured bonds, which do not require a deposit, or 10 percent refundable cash bonds payable to the court.

Although these kinds of bonds would probably be used for nonviolent crimes and so consist of relatively small amounts of money, bail bondsmen build their client base by starting with petty offenders who often return the next time they are arrested.

The bail bond association thinks Colbert's agenda is to put them out of business. One recommendation in his report says in part: "Maryland should further study the viability of eliminating the bail bondsman commercial surety."

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