In 1998, Kanawha's circuit court judges signed an administrative order that allowed criminal defendants to post 10 percent of their bail amount to the court system as a deposit, as opposed to a fee.
The judges also forced the bonding companies to merge into a tightly monitored partnership and appoint a single, court-approved agent to post all of the county's bail bonds, the proceeds of which would be shared among the partners. The bondsmen themselves were actually banned from doing business in the courthouse.
Kanawha County Judge Charles E. King, who was one of the seven circuit judges who signed the order that year, said that the new rules were necessary because the bondsmen were getting out of control.
Some, he said, were taking advantage of clients by charging them outrageous percentages. Others were signing off on bonds that they couldn't back up and neglecting to track down defendants who skipped out on court dates.
Two years before the judges drafted the order, the Gazette-Mail reported that prosecutors could have pursued nearly $4 million worth of bail bond forfeitures in the previous four years. Instead, they seized about $7,000.
"I don't favor it," King said of the bonding industry in general. "I've seen too many headaches and problems with it in the past. That's just a general observation about it."
Kanawha County Chief Public Defender George Castelle said the system works much better without bondsmen. A portion of a defendant's 10 percent deposit to the court, for instance, goes toward court fees or restitution that they would have to pay when the charges are resolved anyway.
"Most defendants struggle to pay [bail] at all," Castelle said. "When they post money through a bondsman, they're even more destitute."
Other county officials, however, want to see bondsmen back in Kanawha, as long as they're properly regulated.
Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants said current bonding rules place the burden of tracking bail jumpers on the already-overworked police agencies.
"Ideally, I'd have an entity with a financial interest to go out and immediately find these defendants," Plants said. "I think it would allow law enforcement to better allocate their resources and we could hold criminals more accountable in a more efficient way."
Magistrate Tim Halloran pointed out that the people who post bail on behalf of defendants today don't exactly have deep pockets.
"Often, we see a family member bring in a grandmother or grandfather. These folks are not really aware of what they're doing," he said. "You can post your property and get your family member out of jail, now your house has a $10,000 lien on it."
Halloran said the state could eliminate many bail bonding issues if lawmakers required bonding agencies to be insured by large commercial surety companies.
"As long as they dot all the 'I's' and cross all the 'T's'," Halloran said, "we ought to explore any avenue we can to get people out of jail and eliminate jail costs and eliminate innocent people from getting kind of hoodwinked from putting their property up."
Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.tay...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.