Getting out of jail in Spokane County is getting cheaper.
After years of inmate overcrowding and a push by the county to streamline the judicial system, prosecutors, defense lawyers and bond companies are seeing judges impose lower bail amounts on crime suspects, making it easier to get out of jail while awaiting trial.
That trend, while helping reduce county spending, has triggered a mild backlash among those who tend to benefit from crowded jails and stiff bail requirements.
“It’s driving us out of the bonding business in this town,” said Rodger Betschart, Jr., owner of Ace’s Bail Bonds.
Bail bond companies make their money by charging crime suspects a fee, usually about 10 percent of the total bail amount, in exchange for posting their bail. The higher the bail amounts, the higher the fees.
One factor in reducing the jail population could be the expansion of a pre-trial release program that analyzes a defendant’s criminal record, history of court appearances and ties to the community and makes a recommendation on whether they should be released. If a defendant has a history of compliance with court orders, for example, or no indications of violent behavior, judges are more likely to impose little or no bail, enabling suspects to return to their lives rather than sit in jail while awaiting trial.
“We’re trying different things instead of just locking them up and holding them with a high bond,” said Superior Court Judge Annette Plese, who monitors bond companies for the court.
“I know they’re upset,” Plese said.
But, she added, “It’s just a total tough time to be doing business. We’ve got 17 bond companies now. That’s a lot of competition.”
Bond companies say the change isn’t just pushing them out business, it’s jeopardizing public safety.
But others question whether lower bonds truly increase crime rates and point to the profit-driven bond industry as concerned only with money — a debate that’s seen around the United States, one of the few countries in the world that allows bail for profit.
“I don’t think there’s a need for public alarm,” said Scott Mason, deputy director of the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office. “Until you see a study that says more people are skipping town because their bond was $5,000 versus $7,000, and I don’t think that’s happening.”
“It’s more that the bondsmen are concerned about their livelihood.”
Courts favor release without bond
Court rules don’t favor bail bonds.
Judges are required to assume suspects should be released from jail on their own recognizance unless criminal history or other factors indicate a possible flight risk or danger to the public. If bail is imposed, it’s to be as low as possible.
“The law is pretty clear,” Mason said.
The intent of bonds is not to punish, it is to assure a defendant’s appearance in court.
Factors that dictate bond — a criminal record, history of violent crimes and track record of appearing in court — can be weighed differently by different judges.
“Each judge reads the statute differently. You can see all sorts of different bonds for all sorts of different charges,” Plese said.
Plese cited as an example a defendant who may have missed 15 court hearings, but had no criminal charges in the last decade.
“Some might say, ‘Well, you’ve been good for 10 years,’” Plese said. “Someone else might just read it and say, ‘Well, that’s a lot of warrants.’”
Bond companies don’t have statistics detailing bond amounts but say that overall, suspects once required to post bonds in the range of $2,500 now are typically released from jail after appearing before a judge. Felony cases that once brought $50,000 bonds hover between $10,000 and $20,000. Controlled-substance charges now bring bonds closer to $1,000 instead of $5,000.
Many defendants are released without posting bond.
“You’re going to see a lot more failures-to-appear, and the recidivism rate is going to go up in Spokane if they continue to do this,” said Jeremy Hubbard, president of the Washington State Bail Agents Association and manager of Affordable Bail Bonds in Vancouver.
But Mason questioned whether the differences truly matter to defendants who already are indigent.
“What’s the difference between $10,000 and $5,000 to someone who is indigent? They don’t want to lose either, so they show up for court,” Mason said. “I think (judges are) determining that a lower bond still brings the person back to court.”
Spokane police say low bonds have hindered efforts to arrest repeat offenders. Instead of sitting behind bars, defendants have been able to post bond and return to committing crimes.
“It’d be nice if the victimization of the community was taken into effect, because yeah they’ve shown up for court, but when they leave the courthouse more than often than not they’re going out and committing more crimes,” said Lt. Scott Mullennix. “What kind of justice is that? Just because they have good record of showing to court?
“It creates a situation where we have to continue to investigate the same people instead of being able to investigate other folks,” he said.
Tax-free bounty hunters?
When police arrested Chandriss D. Miles on two six-month-old warrants, her first phone call wasn’t to her lawyer. It was to a bonds company.
Miles, 26, was out within a few hours after paying about $1,000 of the $10,000 bond.
Bulldog Bail Bonds signed for the remainder, giving them a contracted stake in Miles’ court case.
If she doesn’t show up, the company owes the court the remainder of her bond. Spokane County gives bond companies 60 days to find a defendant before requiring them to pay the reminder of the bond. At that point, money, property or other assets promised to the company by the defendant become fair game for seizure.
Once the bond is paid, companies have a year to find the defendant and request a refund, Plese said.
For Miles, the process is a savior.
She couldn’t afford $10,000 on her own, and said she’s confident she can work out a better deal with prosecutors if she’s not behind bars.
“If you’re sitting in jail, you’ll take whatever they offer you,” Miles said. “It’s tremendously easier when you’re on the outside.”
Miles is now required to check in with Bulldog Bail Bonds each week. The threat of an employee tracking her down is a good incentive to keep in touch, she said.
“You don’t want the bondsmen pounding on your door,” Miles said.
It’s a process Spokane bond companies say can’t be matched — tax-free monitoring of defendants to ensure their appearance in court.
“The bondsmen provide community supervision the public is not aware of,” said Adam Bogle, owner of Bulldog Bail Bonds.
But lately, they say their efforts can seem pointless.
Last month, Bogle located a 22-year-old man who’d skipped court after posting a $400 bond on a driving-while-suspended charge.
A judge released him on his own recognizance the next day, according to court records.
Plese has seen several similar cases and said she’s talked to prosecutors and other judges about the bond companies’ concerns.
It’s crucial prosecutors present information like past warrants, she said.
“The judge has two minutes to make a decision,” Plese said.