Monday, December 10, 2007

Billboards On The Way To County Prison Show The Competitive Side Of Bail Industry

Bail USA Inc. wants you. If you can't post bond to get out of jail, that is.

Anyone traveling East King Street can read all about it, thanks to an advertisement prominently displayed on the side of a building two blocks away from the prison, at North Plum.

The positioning of the sign is deliberate, said Cheryl Burns, the president of Bail USA, Greenville, Mercer County.

The Lancaster County population is rising. The prison is jammed.

The bail-bond field also appears to be growing, according to Vincent Guarini, the prison warden.

"It's competitive," Guarini said. Inmates' families put up the bond money in most cases, he added. But if someone can't make bail "they can shop around."

A courthouse directory lists 23 company-affiliated bail bondsmen and seven bail surety services, several with distant headquarters in cities such as Baltimore, Md., Houston, Texas, and St. Petersburg, Fla.

To make matters more competitive, the Bail USA Web site says, judges are trying to combat prison overcrowding by setting "easy" 10 percent bail.

And so the word is going out.

"We're just doing a little more advertising in the Lancaster County area," Burns said. "We put up billboards in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh about a year ago and we found it's a good way to get our name recognized."

The reaching out is recent. But Bail USA is a national company founded in 1982 and operating in 42 states through independent contractors.

The Lancaster County Clerk of Courts office lists three agents with Bail USA's affiliate, the Seneca Insurance Company Inc., also of Greenville.

One of the agents is a Mifflintown man who Burns said worked for Bail USA for 20 years. The other agents live in Quarryville and Lancaster, according to the courthouse directory.

While many companies handle bonds for business transactions, Burns said, Bail USA focuses solely on bail surety underwriting.

"It's a service we provide that brings down the prison population."

The state regulates all bail bondsmen, Guarini said.

"It's not like 'Dog the Bounty Hunter,' " he added, referring to the tumultuous TV reality show.

"They're pretty selective about who they take," Guarini said. Companies get back the money they've posted plus a service charge when their clients show up for trial.

"They play the risks. If the guy takes off, they lose the bond."

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