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Offbeat Bail agents face death sentence in California

22:00  08 september  2018
22:00  08 september  2018 Source:   latimes.com

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Clustered near county jail and the courthouse, San Diego bail bond agencies sit at the intersection of crime and punishment, ready to play their part in the criminal justice system by helping people avoid incarceration while they await trial. They are, by their own accounts, the unsung heroes of the accused.

Now it's their turn to appeal to a higher power.

Last week Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed into law Senate Bill 10, effectively eliminating cash bail and the niche industry surrounding it, valued at $2 billion annually in the U.S. California-specific revenue is hard to pin down, but Aladdin Bail Bonds, one of the nation's largest bail bond companies, is based in Carlsbad and is expected to pull in $14.4 million in 2018 U.S. revenue, according to research outfit IBISWorld.

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In California , a ' sentencing hearing' takes place after a defendant is convicted of a criminal charge. ("After conviction of an offense not punishable with death , a defendant who has made application for probation or who has appealed may be admitted to bail : 1. As a matter of right, before judgment is

Bail bondsmen (also called bail agents ) post your bail in exchange for a non-refundable premium (which California law sets at a maximum 10%). ("If a defendant is arrested without a warrant for a bailable felony offense or for the misdemeanor offense of violating a domestic violence restraining

Ultimately, the new law aims to level the playing field for rich and poor, ensuring that those who are detained ahead of trial are in custody because they need to be, not because they don't have the money to get out, said bill author Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys.

There are other victims though.

"It would put us out of business completely," said George "Junior" Stahlman III, whose local bail bond business, King Stahlman Bail Bonds, was established by his father, the late George "King" Stahlman, in 1954. You've surely heard its famous jingle, "It's better to know me and not need me than to need me and not know me."

"We're a mom and pop store - a San Diego family business."

Currently, judges in California set bail for defendants, or a fixed amount that must be deposited with the court to ensure someone charged with a felony, and a misdemeanor in special cases, returns for court hearings and trial. If the defendant cannot post the entire bail, the court will accept a promise by a bail bond agency to pay the entire amount. The defendant then must pay a non-refundable premium to the agency in question, which is typically around 10 percent, and also promise to pay the full amount if he or she doesn't appear as directed.

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Under the new "pretrial risk assessment" system, which goes into effect on Oct. 1 of next year, people arrested on most misdemeanor charges will be automatically booked and released. Everyone else will be graded by a "validated risk assessment tool" - aka computer software - that scores a person's likelihood to return to court, and whether or not the person is a threat to public safety. Those deemed by the tool to be "low risk" or "medium risk" will be released after making a written promise to return to the court - with money no longer a factor in the process. Higher risk individuals, meanwhile, may or may not be released with supervision, via tracking devices paid for by taxpayers, following a prevention detention hearing.

a group of people walking down a street next to a building: Bail bond businesses on C Street in San Diego near the jail. Last week Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 10, effectively eliminating cash bail and the niche industry surrounding it, valued at $2 billion annually in the U.S.© Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS Bail bond businesses on C Street in San Diego near the jail. Last week Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 10, effectively eliminating cash bail and the niche industry surrounding it, valued at $2 billion annually in the U.S.

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A referendum drive, launched by a coalition of agencies and supported by bail agents, aims to stop the law from being enacted before the public can weigh in, which would be during the November 2020 election. But, as it stands, the 2,795 licensed bail bondsmen and bondswomen of California, 265 of whom call San Diego County home, need to think about finding a new career.

"I stand to lose a business that I built from nothing," said Wendy Zamutt, the owner of the San Diego-based Bail Bond Woman agency and a licensed agent since 1996.

"Am I sad? I'm very sad. I'm not sad for Wendy, the bail bondwoman. I'm sad for California, because we're going to lose our Eighth Amendment right to bail."

Zamutt, who sold pagers before entering the bail services business in the mid-90s, speaks of her role in the justice system as one mostly misunderstood by the public. She's not a vulture, preying on people when they're down and out. Rather, in her eyes, she's a friend with a shoulder to cry on and a bank account that guarantees a loved one's release.

"I'm here to rescue you," she said.

Zamutt meets her clients directly at jail while they're still in custody - so they don't have to be seen going into a bail bonds office. She helps them locate phone numbers for family members, which most people don't have memorized in the age of smartphones. And she provides hugs when needed, because her clients are often scared and alone.

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"People are treated very badly when they're arrested," Zamutt said. "But just because you were arrested doesn't mean you need to be treated like a criminal."

It's a flowery version of the surety bond system, for sure, but Zamutt's glowing Yelp reviews back up her assertions. Plus, she touts a 100 percent return rate, meaning she makes sure her clients return to court as ordered, and she doesn't need to keep a bounty hunter on staff.

Whether sweet or sour in approach, Zamutt, Stahlman and other bail agents argue that they do what counties cannot; they get people to show up for court.

"The law will put tens of thousands of criminals back out on the streets," said Jeffrey Stanley, a one-time mortgage banker who started his own company, Bad Boys Bail Bonds, 20 years ago. "I think it was irresponsible of the legislature to pass this bill."

Hertzberg, he said, is ignorant of the work it takes to get someone charged with a crime to show up for court appearances. A friendly reminder won't cut it. Nor will counties have the police manpower and financial resources to pick up defendants who fail to appear, Stanley said.

It's the classic argument that private enterprise can do better than government - because money is on the line.

"I would be out of business if my clients didn't show up to court," he said.

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Understanding the role of bail bond agents will help you make the right decision if you find yourself arrested on criminal charges. The bail agent is responsible for bond payment in the event a defendant fails to appear and can't be located. Typically, bail bondsmen have arrangements with local

How a private schoolboy facing death sentence in the U.S. went there to pursue a rap career after his friends 'led him on' about his talent - and was living off his late mother's inheritance. Clinton Thinn, 29, was arrested in California after botched bank robbery. The aspiring rapper has been in a maximum

"I employ 19 full-time investigators that help make sure (defendants) go to court," Stanley added. "If someone misses court, we don't put a warrant into the system. We put them into custody. ... We spend $2.1 million a year ... on recovery, locating individuals."

Whether counties across the state can match the bail agents' court return rates - Stanley says he has a 99.8 percent success rate - remains to be determined. The Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia, where cash bail is a thing of the distant past, asserts that 90 percent of released defendants made all scheduled court appearances in 2015. The federal agency, however, comes with an annual cost of more than $60 million, according to its budget reports.

Because of the state's size, California taxpayers can expect to spend billions in dollars to fund these kinds of pretrial services, the bail agents argue. And because money is at the heart of the matter, they also challenge the idea that money bail discriminates against poor people, claiming it's just political rhetoric.

"I can see why people would think that," Junior, the acting "King" Stahlman, said. "But there's a false narrative spread by the people who created this bill. They act like people are languishing in jail because they can't afford to bail out.

Most people don't know this, but bail bond companies don't charge 10 percent anymore. They can charge up to 10 percent, but most of the time it's way under that. There's a lot of negotiation that goes on depending on what they can afford."

The most common offenses he sees are cases of driving under the influence, which only require a $2,500 bail. That means the defendant would pay at most $250 to secure his or her release. And most times, Stahlman said, the defendant or a family member would make a $50 down payment.

Agree or disagree, the argument is moot - so long as the state law stands.

That means people like Gloria Mitchell, the volunteer president of the California Bail Agents Association and the owner of Gloria Mitchell Bail Bonds in Pomona, must abandon businesses that have often been handed down from generation to generation. Two decades ago, Mitchell took over the family business after her mother died of cancer. Now her two daughters are helping out.

"It's very disheartening that the governor did not stand up to Senate Bill 10," she said.

Hertzberg, of course, argues otherwise.

"Our job in California is to make sure people are treated fairly, not to protect one industry over another."

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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