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Bail bonds industry facing obsolescence under law eliminating cash bail

Many questions remain unanswered about a new bill signed this week that eliminates cash bail in California and instead replaces it with a “pretrial risk assessment” in which a local agency will determine the risk level of those charged with a crime; report their results to the court; and make recommendations for conditions of release.

But one thing is pretty clear. The new law would decimate the bail bonds industry.

“It does away with a whole industry that’s been around probably 150 years and didn’t cost the taxpayers one dime,” said Steve Epps, owner of Cowboy Bail Bonds in Bakersfield. “No system is perfect, and bail for God’s sakes is not a perfect system. But I can’t see doing away with it and starting a whole new system.”

The bill’s supporters say it provides a more equitable system for those who can’t afford bail and ended up staying in jail solely due to insufficient funds.

But detractors say amendments to the bill could result in more people spending time behind bars than under the previous system.

And those detractors are gearing up for a fight. Leading the charge are bail bondsmen, whose industry in California will be wiped out if the law stands.

The American Bail Coalition has announced its support of a ballot initiative it hopes will prevent the bill from becoming law. If enough signatures are gathered, voters will be able to weigh in on the measure in the 2020 general election.

“Our industry has been a significant part of this grand experiment called the United States of America for most of its history,” William Carmichael, chairman of the American Bail Coalition, said on its website. “We are not going to allow it to go away, especially at the expense of the trammeling of constitutional rights and the dehumanization of all of those who will be processed by the new justice-by-algorithm system.”

The way the current system works, those in custody usually need to pay a bail bondsman a nonrefundable fee of 7 percent to 10 percent of the bail price in order for the bondsman to post bail. Failure to turn up in court will result in the bondsman rescinding the bail amount.

Epps estimates the new system could cost the state as much as $2 billion to implement. And he said there will be “mass incarceration” because those who previously could have posted bond and been released will instead be stuck inside a cell.

The law takes effect Oct. 1, 2019.

There are a lot of family-owned bail bonds businesses that have been passed down for generations that will go belly up under the new system, Epps said. Cowboy Bail Bonds, for example, was started by Epps’ father in 1969 then passed on to him.

T.J. Esposito of Patriot Bail Bonds in Bakersfiled said the legislation “is just bad policy.”

For one thing, he said, it’s going to require more court appearances and more time from attorneys and judges. Then there’s the issue of people being released who will fail to show for their court hearing.

Esposito said two-thirds of people released on their own recognizance fail to appear in court while only 4 percent of defendants nationwide fail to show because they know the bondsman will rescind the bail amount, he said. There’s more incentive to appear.

And on the other end of the spectrum, he said, are those who previously could have made bail who will now be stuck in custody because they’re deemed too much of a risk.

Esposito said Senate Bill 10 is “bad on every level” and replaces a system that’s not perfect but works.

“Bail bondsmen are like honeybees,” he said. “They’re scary when they fly by, they sting, but nothing works without them.”

Jason Kotowski can be reached at 661-395-7491. Follow him on Twitter: @tbcbreakingnews.

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