Bonds Away

The amount of forfeited bail bonds grows, and nothing is done

Maybe John Burns is just a bad judge of character. For years, Burns worked as an independent bail bondsman, but it seems too many of his customers were failing to appear in court. According to records of the Harris County District Clerk, when the county's Bail Bond Board finally jerked Burns' bond-writing license, the bondsman owed the county $444,894 because of his no-show clients.

But before you start feeling too sorry for Burns, consider that while the county searches for his AWOL customers, as well as ways to collect on the $444,894, Burns continues to write bonds, springing accused criminals from jail under the auspices of his son's license at Burns Bail Bonds.

Bondsman Jerry Mercer, who owes the county $227,893, has gone to work writing bonds for Allegheny Mutual Casualty Company since the county refused to do business with him as an independent. Edd Blackwood is another bondsman in arrears to the county -- he owes $309,000 -- but he, too, now works for Allegheny.

John Burns, for one, is philosophical about the situation.
"You end up writing a bond because you need the premium, and you don't study it from a risk factor," he acknowledges. "I had been in the business 20 consecutive years and had written thousands and thousands of bonds, but all of a sudden I wrote seven or eight bad ones. The numbers are very embarrassing, and I can't make an excuse for them. I'm just explaining that I fell into the same trap that is the downfall of many bondsmen."

Overall, the numbers certainly are embarrassing. The amount owed to Harris County as a result of surety bonds that were forfeited when defendants failed to appear for court has grown to an alarming sum -- at least $12 million according to one report, as much as $61 million over the last ten years according to another. The latter figure comes from a study compiled in February by the district clerk's office. District Clerk Charles Bacarisse now says the total owed to the county is probably something less than $61 million, but not much less, say other officials familiar with the study. County Auditor Tommy Tompkins, meanwhile, is confident the amount owed to the county by bondsmen is at least $12 million since 1988 -- the figure he stated in a report to Commissioners Court last year.

Either way, it's the kind of money that would go a long way toward putting more deputies on the streets of Harris County to help prevent the crimes the bond-jumpers are accused of committing. But there's a more important consideration than lost revenue.

"The point that the taxpayers suffer from is not so much the loss of revenue, but instead the fact that people who ought to be standing trial for the offenses they've committed in coming before the bar of justice are still out wandering," says assistant prosecutor Kathy Braddock, who heads the district attorney's bond forfeiture division. "In the end, there may not be anyone who's going to be held accountable [in those cases]."

The system supposedly is designed to ensure accountability. When an accused criminal is released on bail, a bonding company signs a promissory note, or surety bond, for the full amount of the bail set by the court. The bonding company then charges the defendant a portion of the bail -- usually 10 percent. If the defendant fails to appear, the bonding company is liable for the full amount -- or it's supposed to be.

In the report he submitted to the Harris County Commissioners Court last year, County Auditor Tompkins suggested a number of ways for improving the way the county regulates bail bondsmen. But more than a year later, none of the changes have been implemented.

Under Texas law, a bonding company is allowed to write bonds for up to ten times the amount of the company's collateral. For example, if a company puts up property worth $50,000, it can write bonds totaling $500,000. Included in Tompkins' report was a recommendation to reduce the collateral/ bond ratio to one-to-one. A bill which would have reduced the ratio to five-to-one never made it out of a subcommittee during the current session of the Legislature.

Another of the auditor's recommendations called for the use of the Harris County Appraisal District to set the value on the property that bondsmen put up as collateral. Currently, the value of the property is determined by independent appraisers hired by the bondsmen. Tompkins also suggested that 30 percent of a prospective bondsman's collateral be in cash. Like the limit on collateral ratio, both proposals died legislative deaths in Austin this spring.

However, there is a possibility the Harris County Bail Bond Board may take some action on its own against deadbeat bondsmen. The board is currently studying the idea of barring bondsmen, such as Blackwood, Mercer and Burns, who have a hefty amount of delinquent bonds from working in the bail bonding business in any capacity. According to assistant district attorney Braddock, Dallas County recently took the precedent-setting step of requiring all bondsmen, regardless of whom they work for, to be in good standing with the county.

"Under that reading of the law," says Braddock, who represents the district attorney's office on the bond board, "people who still owed us would not be able to write bonds."

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