Is a Commercial Bail Bond System Viable in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin has operated without a commercial bail bond system since 1979. In its place, the county clerk of courts or the local sheriff holds the bail set by a judge. If the defendant makes all court appearances and is acquitted of the crime, the bond is returned. If the defendant is found guilty and convicted of the crime, the bond is applied toward fines and court costs.

After all these years, there have been rumblings in the Capitol to introduce a measure that would allow the operation of commercial bail bond companies. If the measure is passed, Wisconsin would be one of 47 states that allow private bail bondsmen to operate. Legislation was formerly introduced in 2011, only to be vetoed by Governor Scott Walker.

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Supporters of the legislation argue that allowing private bail bondsmen to operate in the state would save the state money by reducing court costs and by ensuring that defendants will appear in court by using bounty hunters who are contracted to work for bail bond companies.

A number of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials in Wisconsin, however, denounce the measure, claiming that, by allowing private bail bond companies and bounty hunters to operate in the state, corruption would be rampant, bail costs would be inflated, and the risk to crime victims and the general public would increase.

Many individuals are optimistic about the second-time-around legislation, as Governor Walker admitted that his first veto on the measure was caused by legislators not being allowed enough time to “properly evaluate the proposal…”

In 2012 alone, Wisconsin collected more than $9 million in bail money. This money was used to compensate victims and help run the state’s legal system. This money, according to some clerks of courts and judges in Wisconsin, may be at risk if a private bail bond system was allowed to operate in the state.

Under a private bail bond system, the state would receive 3 percent of the bail from the bondsman and nothing from the defendant. However, advocates of a private bail bond system say that defendants would have better access to resources for their pretrial release and that the legislature would be free to use the 3 percent fee for whatever purpose it deems appropriate. They also say that a private system would eliminate the risk of courts manipulating defendants on plea bargains.

The proposal would include implementing a pilot program in 5 Wisconsin counties: Kenosha, Milwaukee, Waukesha, Dane and Racine, which together hold nearly 40 percent of the state’s population.

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