This report is part of a series examining pretrial release programs, the cash bail system and West Virginia's growing prison and jail overpopulation problems. This story was produced in conjunction with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Chasing down a bail jumper can be a tough job. Will Seay has the scars to prove it.
A few years ago, Seay tracked two absconders to a house in Washington state and kicked through the front door. When the men saw that his leg was stuck, they grabbed it and twisted until it snapped.
"That wasn't a fun trip back," Seay said, rolling up a pant leg to show off a healed gash that spanned the better part of his shin.
Seay, the owner of a Raleigh County bonding agency, said he is one of a minority of West Virginia bail bondsmen who keep proper tabs on the criminally charged people he helps release from jail.
Last week, he and bondsmen Tommy Weatherholtz and Bill Garvin traveled to Charleston to ask lawmakers to consider drafting legislation that would create a unified set of rules to regulate the bonding industry.
Bondsmen, who must track down and sometimes forcefully apprehend clients who skip out on their court dates, are not required to have a state license or any type of training in order to do the job. Often, they don't even need to prove that they have the proper financial backing to post a defendant's bail.
"West Virginia is an open-carry state," Weatherholtz, of Jefferson County, told the Sunday Gazette-Mail. "So now, all of a sudden, you got a badge, handcuffs and a gun in someone's hand because Johnny Boy owns a farm down the road."
In September, legislative auditors released a report that found West Virginia is one of just a handful of states that do not have statutory rules to regulate the bail bonding industry.
Twenty of West Virginia's 55 counties do not have any rules that govern bondsmen at all, which has opened the state to a "higher risk of corruption and unscrupulous treatment by bail bond agents on those seeking bail," the report found.
"I think most of us have no basic training to become a bondsman," Garvin said. "We learn through experience. . . . It's scary sometimes."
In general, whenever a person gets arrested, a magistrate sets a cash amount that he will have to pay in order to get out of jail. If the defendant doesn't have the money, he can pay a bondsman a small percentage of the bail as a fee. In exchange, the bondsman pledges the full amount to the court as collateral and takes the responsibility for making sure his client shows up for his hearings.
If the client flees to another county or state, then a judge has the option to order prosecutors to seize the full amount of the bail or give the bondsman a chance to locate the absconder. If the bondsman fails, then the bail is up for grabs.
In West Virginia, the power to regulate bondsmen falls to circuit court judges who, on some occasions, set rules that are so harsh that bonding agencies have difficulty establishing themselves in certain counties.
Kanawha County, for instance, has been without a bail-bonding agency for more than a decade, the report found.