Is fierce competition in the bail bonds industry compromising public safety? That question is on the minds of Washington state officials in the wake of the Maurice Clemmons case.
Clemmons is the man police say shot dead four Lakewood police officers Thanksgiving weekend. Clemmons had bailed out of jail just a few days before the murders. Austin Jenkins reports.
At Bad Boys Bail Bonds in Tacoma, owner Ty Brokaw is on the phone with a possible customer. It's the aunt of a man who's in jail on a domestic violence charge. She wants to know what it would take to bail her nephew out.
|Bad Boys Bail Bonds owner Ty Brokaw at his desk in Tacoma|
Ty Brokaw: "Well he's got a $50,000 bail so who's going to be able to put up money and co-sign for him?"
The aunt tells Brokaw that the man's mother is prepared to vouch for her son. And she's got a Chevy pick-up as collateral.
Ty Brokaw: "As far as vehicles go, I don't deal with vehicles at all. And also a Chevy pick-up will not cover a $50,000 bail."
Brokaw tells the aunt that he'll need something more substantial as collateral -- like a house. And the cash fee up front will be $5000 or ten percent of the bail.
When the aunt balks, Brokaw says he's willing to take half down and set up a payment plan for the rest -- as long as there's a house with equity in it.
Ty Brokaw: "Alright, thanks. Bye, bye. Well, there you go. There's a negotiated bond."
Brokaw's been in the bail bond business for ten years. He says the Lakewood police shootings rocked him too. He admits he might have bailed out Arkansas parolee Maurice Clemmons under the right circumstances.
For him the lesson is bail bondsmen need more information from the courts about the defendants they're dealing with.
|Mural outside Bad Boys Bail Bonds in Tacoma|
Ty Brokaw: "I would never have known about Arkansas with Maurice Clemmons, I would never have known that this was his third strike and that, I think, is the unfortunate part of it. I just think if we're given more information then we'd make better decisions."
Brokaw isn't the only one who thinks Washington's bail bonds system could be improved.
Mark Lindquist is Pierce County Prosecutor.
Mark Lindquist: "I think we need truth in bail."
By that Lindquist means this: He wants defendants to have to put down ten percent of their bail and no less, plus enough collateral to cover the rest of the bond. He thinks the bail bond industry is playing a bit fast and loose these days.
Mark Lindquist: "It's an industry with a lot of heavy competition and people are undercutting each other and by that what I mean is defendants are being released with posting less than ten-percent and then being released without sufficient collateral. In many cases the collateral is fictitious."
Lindquist points specifically to Maurice Clemmons. He put down less than five percent on $190,000 in bail.
His collateral was a house worth more than that, but he had stopped making payments in July and was facing foreclosure.
Washington's Department of Licensing regulates bail bonds and reviewed the Clemmons file. It found no wrongdoing by the bonds company -- Jail Sucks-- out of Centralia, Washington. Its owner notes Clemmons was put on a GPS tracking bracelet and had agreed to pay off the ten percent over three months.
Another person who is troubled by Washington's bail bonds system is Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning. In testimony before a House committee, he said there used to be two main bail bond outfits in his county and he trusted them.
Stephen Warning: "I can't tell you how many bondsmen we now have in our county. A lot of them are just a phone number which is problematic in and of itself. And now when I set that $20,000 bail I am a lot less sanguine about what that means."
It's important to note that bail is a constitutional right in Washington. It's also a way to ease overcrowding in county jails.
This is where bail bond agents come in. Their job is to compel a defendant - financially and sometimes by force - to show up for court.
If a client absconds and can't be found, the agent has to forfeit the entire bond to the court.
Does this system need reforms? State Senator Mike Carrell, a Pierce County Republican, thinks so. He's introduced legislation that would require bail bondsmen to take the full ten percent up front.
Mike Carrell: "When it's public safety I don't want one person outbidding another in order to release somebody that maybe shouldn't be released."
But Carrell's bill has hit a major roadblock.
Adam Kline: "It's kind of odd that conservative Republicans is suggesting that we regulate the industry. And a liberal Democrat like me is saying no we shouldn't."
Senator Adam Kline is a Seattle Democrat who chairs the judiciary committee. He opposes the ten percent requirement.
Adam Kline: "The beneficiaries of this competition are low-income people, typically, they are presumed innocent by definition. Why should not low-income people be the beneficiaries of this competition between entrepreneurs?"
Even the bail bonds industry is divided on this issue.
The Washington State Bail Agents Association says it supports the ten percent proposal because it would level the playing field. The group's Jeremy Hubbard manages Affordable Bail Bonds in Vancouver, Washington.
Jeremy Hubbard: "Is there bad in every industry? Of course there is. You know you're going to get a bond come in, write for one-percent down and that's as the association we're trying to weed those out just like Senator Carrell is or anyone else."
But one of the biggest players in bail bonds has a different view.
Robert Hayes is CEO of Alladin Bail Bonds with fifty locations in California, Washington and Idaho. He doesn't think it's the legislature's role to wade into the details of payment plans.
He would, however, support creating more incentives for bail agents to find bail jumpers more quickly.
But nothing will change quickly. Washington Governor Chris Gregoire has announced a review of the entire bail system.
In an ironic twist, what was the first place Maurice Clemmons worked when he moved from Arkansas to Washington: at a bail bonds company.