CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A bill that would give county officials the ability to create programs that aim to release criminal defendants who lack the money to post bail to the court system has drawn the ire of a state group that represents commercial bail bondsmen.
West Virginia Surety Bail Bond Association President Bill Garvin said that the new bill (SB 584), which was introduced last week and powered through the Senate Tuesday with a 33-0 vote, blindsided the group and conflicts with efforts to create uniform statewide bonding rules.
"The thing about it is, we're working to come up with ideas that we think would control jail costs," Garvin said. "This bill kind of came out of nowhere. We weren't even aware there would be a bill."
Bail bondsmen are generally opposed to pretrial release programs, which they say cannot properly monitor criminal defendants who are awaiting their court dates and place a burden on overworked police agencies to track down absconders.
Advocates of pretrial release say the programs serve as a guard against arbitrary bail amounts set by judges and magistrates and help mitigate jail costs. They also encourage courts to forgo traditional cash-based release systems, which in most cases would eliminate the need for a bail bondsman.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Sam Cann, D-Harrison, uses recommendations from a study released earlier this year by the Justice Center's Council of State Governments, which Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin cited in a $25 million justice reinvestment initiative that aims to alleviate the state's prison and jail overpopulation crisis.
The study found that 43 percent of inmates in the state's regional jail system are awaiting trial.
Last week's bill is the second time in recent years that lawmakers have geared a bill toward pretrial release.
In 2009, the Legislature passed a bill that gave officials in up to five counties the authority to establish pilot pretrial release programs.