After an all-night session, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted to allow commercial bail bondsmen to operate in Wisconsin. This is a bad, dangerous and unnecessary idea. Gov. Walker must veto this proposal if it reaches his desk, as he did two years ago.
Bail in criminal cases is a promise to appear in court. If you can post bail, you can stay out of jail pending trial. The access to bail is not only a constitutional right, it is a critical part of the criminal justice system — critical not only for individuals facing time in jail but critical for the system itself. For many defendants the ability to stay out of jail before trial is often the difference between serving a sentence in the community and going to prison. If you are out on bail you can keep your job, your place to live and your family. All those indications of stability can be important evidence that you can serve your sentence successfully on probation rather than going to prison. Not being able to make bail means you may very well lose your job, your home and your family. That apparent instability makes prison a more likely sentence.
In every state but Wisconsin, Kentucky and Illinois, posting bail means dealing with a commercial bail bondsman. These operations take as payment 10 percent of the amount of bail and promise the courts to pay the rest if the defendant fails to appear. It also allows the bail bond companies to use private bounty hunters to track down people who fail to appear.
This is a predatory system that preys on the poor and allows dangerous and potentially violent private vigilante forces to operate in our communities. Watching an episode of "Dog the Bounty Hunter" gives some insight into how this system operates.
For more than 30 years, Wisconsin courts have operated safely and effectively without the bondsman. The current system allows a judge to evaluate each defendant’s danger to the community and likelihood of appearing for court. The current system provides a number of ways that defendants can post bail through the clerk of courts. Defendants who fail to appear are subject to prosecution and forfeiture of money and even property. Bail that is posted can be used to help restore victims. This is all done through the legal process and trained law enforcement officers. It eliminates the bondsman’s greed and the bounty hunter's violence. And it works. Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and victim advocates are united in saying that this legislation is completely unnecessary.
While the language in the current legislation is for a “pilot program,” there is every reason to believe that once bondsmen and bounty hunters arrive in Wisconsin they will be here to stay. The corporate greed, lack of concern for justice, public safety and victims that motivated this proposal will be used to replace the current system. When that happens, bail will only be available to those who can pay. The poor will go to prison and the rich will go home.
Wisconsin leads the nation in the racial disparity in its prison system. By inflicting the bondsman and the bounty hunter on our communities, that outrageous disparity will increase.
This proposal is an embarrassment to the citizens of Wisconsin.
The Rev. Jerry Hancock is minister at Madison's First Congregational United Church of Christ. He is the former deputy DA for Dane County and former administrator of Law Enforcement Services in the Department of Justice.