Bail bond businesses in Clark County and elsewhere are struggling due to the changes made by courts and correctional facilities trying to reduce their inmate populations and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Three bail businesses in Vancouver, all of which are a stone’s throw from the Clark County Courthouse, have had to cut hours, lay off or furlough employees, and refocus their efforts.
The owners of the businesses said the pandemic has created challenges unseen in their decades of experience. They said the increasing frequency in certain crime categories proves that the state’s bail system is needed to hold criminal defendants accountable.
In contrast, local attorneys in support of bail reform said the risk of a coronavirus outbreak at the Clark County Jail is forcing law enforcement and court officials to reckon with how often and quickly people are locked up when there should be less restrictive alternatives available.
“Everyone wants public safety, but the current way of doing things creates an unbreakable cycle for many people. I think that, ironically, the pandemic has shown that some of the things we do commonly don’t really make sense,” said Tim Murphy, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project.
Bail business hit
David Regan, of Regan Bail Bonds, said he has laid off half of his staff, from six employees to three. He said he also cut the hours of senior employees.
Regan said the number of bonds he and his two remaining agents are posting has dropped by 63 percent. Pre-pandemic, the staff would post bail for about 45 defendants each week. Now, there are between 18 and 22 being posted weekly, he said.
“There are bonds that are still being issued by the courts, but they’re in low amounts. They’re few and far between,” Regan said.
He said he’s generally able to pay off the company’s credit card each month, but has had to ask for an interest waiver, which was granted.
His agents are staying busy partly by tracking down fugitives. The pandemic has made catching wanted people easier, because they’re returning home and staying there due to stay-at-home requirements and little else to do.
The owner of Affordable Bail Bonds, Bryan Nester, said he has furloughed half of his staff. There are now five employees working at his company, which is based in Vancouver but operates statewide.
Nester reported 47 percent fewer bonds posted by his company since March, when people were told to stay indoors. He said he anticipates the courts to reopen at some point and for his workload to pick up. That should allow him to bring employees back.
According to Nester, many people are being booked and released for things such as theft and other property crimes, drug crimes and repeat driving offenses — cases where a judge previously would have set bail.
“If we’re going to continue booking and releasing, there’s really not a deterrent to crime. There are no repercussions,” Nester said.
Court system delays
The county’s court system has all but halted, with the exception of certain hearings. All adult and juvenile in-custody criminal hearings except for first appearances, arraignments, plea hearings, criminal motions without testimony or other evidentiary requirements, and sentencing or disposition hearings have been postponed.
Court officials met in mid-March to discuss ways to reduce the jail’s population, which fell from 601 on March 17 to 417 three days later. There were 381 inmates in the jail as of June 5, according to data submitted to the state.
The officials set a general criteria for the types of crimes and cases to be assessed for release during the pandemic. Since then, many defendants charged with nonviolent cases have been let out. Some inmates serving a sentence of less than a year at the jail have been furloughed.
At least 40,656 people in prison have tested positive for COVID-19 as of June 2, according to The Marshall Project. There have been at least 56 cases of coronavirus reported among prisoners in Washington. An inmate at Clark County Jail, who was released, tested positive for the illness in April. The jail’s reports show several inmates are tested and quarantined weekly, but there have been no additional positive test results.
Thomas Loos, who owns A+ Bail Bonds, also in downtown Vancouver, said he laid off “everyone.” He said his business is surviving, but he’s posting about 10 to 15 percent of the bonds he usually would. His daily average before COVID-19 was about five per day, he said.
Loos said he’s never experienced such a loss in business in his 22 years of working in bail and bonds, noting he’s worried about increasing crime and public safety.
Property crimes up
Since March 16, the Vancouver Police Department has reported a significant uptick in property crimes. Burglaries are up 55.6 percent, compared with the same time period last year. Auto theft is up 41.7 percent, vehicle prowling is up 35 percent and vandalism is up 24.4 percent. With the exception of simple assault — up 14 percent, mostly due to domestic violence — the spike applies to nonviolent crimes. Rape and robbery reports are both down.
Nationally, many cities big and small are seeing less crime. The dip in crime is compounded by the fact that some police departments have been hampered by quarantines, or have made fewer arrests to limit interactions or to avoid filling the jails, according to the New York Times.
“We pay the court thousands of dollars to act as supervisor to these people. The system works. For people saying this is a time to change, I’d say sure, if you don’t mind your home being broken into,” Loos said.
Regan and Nester said they agree that certain changes could be made, such as instituting more alternatives for defendants struggling with substance abuse, but the current conditions prove bail businesses are integral to the criminal justice system.
Without bail in many cases, they said, people are under the impression that there are no repercussions for their criminal behaviors.
Questioning mass incarceration
Murphy, the Northwest Justice Project attorney, said the special circumstances courts are operating under due to COVID-19 could have positive impacts on lessening mass incarceration.
“It’s not the blame of the individual bail bondsman, but the system that creates the need for them is fairly coercive. I saw in my previous job (as a public defense attorney) that people will often plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit or have a valid defense for so they don’t have to sit in jail. It puts a price tag on liberty,” Murphy said.
Eli Marchbanks, attorney with Navigate Law Group, said bonds companies pragmatically serve an important role because they allow people to get out of custody before their trial when they otherwise might not be able to do so. However, Marchbanks said bail orders are administered extremely unjustly.
“I am uncomfortable with a system that allows people to get out of custody pretrial simply because they can afford it,” Marchbanks said.
Of the 631,000 people held in U.S. jails, 74 percent have not been convicted of a crime, and most of them are there due to a lack of funds, according to the Prison Policy Institute. Vancouver’s bail bond owners disputed the accuracy of reformists’ data, stating many people in jail aren’t eligible for supervised released due to other factors such as criminal history.
Incarcerating people before trial costs taxpayers $38 million a day, according to a 2017 report by the Prison Policy. That adds up to nearly $14 billion annually. The bail bond industry generates an estimated $2 billion per year, according to industry observers.
The idea behind bail is to act as an incentive to come back to court, but it doesn’t seem to work, Marchbanks said. Things are unlikely to change once the courts fully reopen, he said.
“The court rules are structured in a way to consider bail as more of a last resort, (but) it hasn’t stopped the court system from using it as the default tool pre-COVID-19. I am doubtful that much will change post-COVID,” he said.