Wilmington, NC (WECT) - Supply and Demand. It's a free market principle that exists in almost every industry. But in the world of bail bonding - competition could be putting you at risk.
There are 25 bail bonding companies in New Hanover County alone - all competing for the same business. As some of them cut their rates to get customers, some people accused of violent crimes are getting out of jail for very little money.
US Marshals arrested Garry Hines in 2012 for murder following a deadly fight at Club 609 in Wilmington. Hines bond was initially $1,000,000, but a judge later reduced it to $300,000.
Then, Hines got another break when a local bail bondsman agreed to discount his bond premium. Out on the street on a discounted bond, it wasn't long before Hines was in trouble again and back behind bars for allegedly dealing heroin.
Some communities have paid an even bigger price when defendants got out on discounted bonds.
In Washington State, Maurice Clemmons bonded out, walked into a coffee shop and murdered four police officers as they prepared for their shift. Clemmons freedom from jail required posting a $190,000 bond. Prosecutors and Clemmons' victims felt secure knowing he could never come up with the standard 10% cash to secure that bond.
But he didn't have to. Instead of paying that $19,000 premium, Clemmons family worked the system. The man who would execute four police officers was free, for just over $3,000.
It's a reality violent criminal defendants have figured out about our justice system: posting bail - no matter how high it's been set - can cost almost nothing.
"There are different bond companies out there now that are quite frankly bidding against each other," New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David explained. "Defendants can post a bond that is far less in many cases of that 10% to make it."
It used to be that no matter which bail bondsmen you called, you got the same 10% rate. That's not at all the case anymore. While state law regulates how much bail bondsmen can charge, it does not regulate how little they can charge.
"Where the competition comes in is different companies will lower what they need down. Like if a family doesn't have the exact amount to pay the bond premium," said Mike Worley, a bondsman with All American Bail Bonding.
Bail bondsmen are for-profit businessmen. They're not out there for public safety and it's not their job to set the standards by which people get out of jail.
All American Bail Bonding typically charges 9-15% bond premiums, but some bondsmen in our area advertise rates of 6% or even less to get your business.
"It makes you wonder sometimes how businesses are able to operate, knowing how after they pay their fees, there's not really that much profit left in the deal for the amount of liability that's left on the street," Worley said.
While competition can be a good thing, this may be one situation where the discount pricing is putting public safety at risk. Courthouse insiders say in some cases, judges don't even realize how little it's costing these defendants to get out of jail.
David says that when bonds premiums get extremely discounted, there becomes an accountability issue.
"When we do receive a high bond, but then it's undercut by someone being able to post it automatically...the defendant doesn't have a lot to lose, because it's really not their money," explained David. "It's their great aunt's or their family's property or this bail bondsman who is only charging 3% instead of 15%."
Prosecutors frequently lobby to have judges increase the bond amount for defendants, but they have no control over the discounts bail bondsmen offer to their clients.
Despite this potential crack in the system, local lawmakers we talked to say that overall, the bail bonding system works well, and they don't see the need to change the law to set minimum premiums.
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