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Judge wary of proposed return to bail bondsmen system

A provision in the Wisconsin state budget awaiting Gov. Scott Walker’s signature would revive a competitive bail bond practice and potentially lead to confusion in the criminal justice system.

The proposal, which would revive state licensing of bail bondsmen for the first time in almost 32 years, is framed in the budget as a way to create a competitive new job market, while also generating revenue for the state.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, approved bail bondsmen applicants would have to initially pay a $1,000 “credential fee” and the same amount each year to the Department of Safety and Professional Services for license renewal.

Rick Sankovitz

But Milwaukee felony court judge Rick Sankovitz argued that depending on how the system is implemented, it could weaken public safety and lead to fewer people showing up for court.

Under the bail bondsmen system, defendants would pay only a fraction of the bail set by the judge. Their payment would go directly to the bail bond corporation, which insures the rest with the court.

As proposed in the state budget, a licensed corporation or agent would get 10 percent of the amount of the bond set by judges in Wisconsin.

Theoretically, Sankovitz said, judges will set bail 10 times higher than they do now to compensate for the involvement of the bail bond corporations and make sure there is adequate incentive for defendants to show up to court.

“The thing that could give me trouble sleeping at night,” he said, “is not knowing whether I got the bail amount right because the surety corporation might second guess my judgment about how much is necessary to get a person back to court.”

Sankovitz acknowledged the system could create a competitive marketplace for the service, but said the issues it could create also need to be considered.

“This is archetypal special interest legislation,” he said. “If municipalities are having a hard time getting defendants to come to court, there are any number of avenues which could have been traveled to raise this issue rather than return to the days of bail bondsmen.”

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