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Pretrial release bill blindsides bondsmen

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.

The state Division of Justice and Community Services funded the pilot with a $300,000 grant, dispersing it evenly between Mercer, Wayne, Brooke, Greenbrier and Wood counties as officials from each jurisdiction gradually showed interest in starting their own release programs.

A February Gazette report found that officials in the pilot counties do not track statistical information -- like failure to appear rates -- that generally determine whether a program is working. Last year, regional jail bills had risen in every pilot county except for Brooke.

"We definitely feel that statistically, throughout the United States, pretrial release has not proven to be a successful thing," Garvin said. "It looks to me like it's going to cost the state more money than it's going to provide."

Cann said that the current pretrial release bill is based on assurances from Brooke County officials that their program has been successful in curbing regional jail costs. Cann said that he did not examine the pilots in the other four counties.

"I made myself familiar with what the [1st Judicial Circuit] has done and what their success is," Cann said. "I have history with them and trust and believe that they go after these type of programs to make sure they do what's best for their communities."

It is not clear whether the bill will include language that bars counties from releasing inmates accused of violent crimes, like robbery or sexual assault. Cann said the program is not intended for such inmates, but no versions of the bill posted on the Legislature's website appeared to list eligibility requirements.

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, pointed out that the bill calls for counties to establish a board that consists of a prosecutor, a county commissioner, sheriff, and defense lawyer to make recommendations on which inmates would be released.

"I think they would not allow a violent felon to participate in this kind of program," he said. "That leaves the decision up to the judge to make the final call."

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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