Madison — Last year in Wisconsin, $9.5 million in bail money from criminals was used to compensate their victims and help run the state’s legal system — money that would be put at risk under a proposed private bail bond system, according to judges and clerks of courts.
Right now, when defendants post bail, county clerks of court hold onto the money. Upon conviction, the court can use some of the bail money for victim compensation and other legal costs before returning the remainder to the criminal.
If a family member posts bail, then upon conviction the bail money would be returned to the family.
Under a private bail bond proposal included in the state budget, the county could receive nothing from the defendant directly and just 3% of the bail from a bondsman, who would take responsibility for paying the rest of the bail if the defendant doesn’t show up.
If the defendant does show up and is convicted, the county would be on its own in collecting any victims’ compensation or court costs owed by the criminal. That’s one reason why all 47 judges in Milwaukee County and all 10 of the state’s chief judges have signed letters against the proposal.
“They’ll still owe that money, but try collecting it from someone who you’ve just sent to prison for 25 years,” Milwaukee County Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers said.
Under the bail bondsman provision tucked into the state budget bill this month by Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, a defendant would pay 10% of his or her bail to the bondsman, who would keep this money as his fee. The bondsman would be obligated to pay the whole bail to the county clerk if the defendant didn’t show up for court, but would have no obligation to pay the clerk anything beyond the initial 3% if the defendant is convicted.
Clerks fear this private system would make it much harder for them to collect money from convicted criminals for purposes such as compensating victims.
Of the money collected from bail last year, $1.1 million was paid in victim restitution, according to the director of the State Courts Office.
Restitution is often used in cases where the victim has high medical bills. A 2011 case is an example of how the system works now.
In that crime, Chad Schullo gave his victim balloons filled with acetylene — an unstable and combustible fuel — that exploded in her face. The blast burst both of the victim’s eardrums and spread second- and third-degree burns across her face and chest. Schullo refused to call for medical help — the victim had to drive herself to the hospital.
The out-of-pocket expenses alone totaled more than $10,000 for the victim, who is not being named to protect her identity.
Schullo posted bail, about $12,500 of which is expected to be paid in victim’s compensation, according to Mary Hogan, a victim assistance coordinator in the Barron County district attorney’s office.
“No matter what happens (the bail bondsman proposal) is going to take money away from victims,” Hogan said. “They get so little that another kick isn’t something they should have to endure.”
Vos defends plan
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), a key supporter of the bondsman proposal, noted that judges would have discretion about whether to participate in the proposed system. Wisconsin is one of three states that does not allow bail bondsmen, who Vos said were especially successful at getting people to show up for court.
He also said officials need to keep in mind the purpose of bail.
“The point of bond is never to pay court costs,” he said. “I have always said the point of bond is to ensure people show up for court.”
Upon conviction, the money paid by a defendant as bail can be used first to pay victims compensation and then court fees, which range from a DNA analysis surcharge to a jail surcharge and clerk’s fees. There are about 70 types of fees and restitution charges.
Milwaukee County Clerk of Courts John Barrett said he and other clerks collect these fees largely because of laws put in place by the Legislature. That in turn helps victims and prevents taxpayers from paying more to fund the courts, he said.
“The system we have now is really legitimate,” Barrett said. With bail bondsmen, “there is a lot of extra work for no real benefit.”
Bail bond advocates say a private system is advantageous to defendants. It would provide them with better access to resources for their pretrial release, according to Dennis Bartlett, executive director of American Bail Coalition, which advocates for bail bonds. In addition, Bartlett said the Legislature was free to use bail bond’s 3% fee for whatever purpose it likes.
“There is no reason they cannot set up a victims compensation fund,” he said, adding that the 3% was a significant sum.
Bartlett said the fees are a way for counties to control the money by squeezing defendants for more surcharges.
“The courts love that system, it gives them a lot of cash in hand,” Bartlett said. “From the very start they can manipulate the defendant on plea bargains” by controlling what happens with the bail money.
The proposal would implement a pilot program in five counties: Dane, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Racine and Waukesha, which are home to almost 40% of the state’s population, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Clerks would have to collect data on the system and an advisory board would oversee the private bondsmen.
Kremers, the Milwaukee County chief judge, expects every one of the county’s 47 judges to not allow commercial bail, as allowed for under the bill.
He fears, however, that in the future, bail bondsmen could contribute to and sponsor candidates that would allow these companies to operate.
After the fee of 3% is paid to the county, some clerks fear there would be no way to collect the rest of money owed if the defendant is in jail.
“Under the new system, I have to go hunting for the rest of my money,” said Roseanne Lee, clerk of courts in Racine County. “If I have to go after more debt, I’m going to either have to have more staff or farm more things out to collection agencies that take a piece of the money.”
Clerks are most concerned about compensating victims. For example, in Milwaukee County, a woman who killed her friend by hitting a tree while she was drunk last year surrendered $21,893 to the victim’s family almost entirely with her bail money, according to court documents.
In 2012, in just four cases in Milwaukee County, $78,000 paid by defendants as bail was turned over to victims as restitution.
How long it takes for victims to receive even modest amounts of restitution could also be an issue under the new system, some clerks said. Sheila Reiff, clerk of courts in Walworth County, said that if the money is handed over earlier through forfeiture of bail, the victim is helped more quickly. Otherwise it could be years before the victim receives even a fraction of the money, she said.