Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Recession Affecting Bail Business, Florida Bondsman Claims

If you're arrested, a bail bondsman can be your best friend or worst enemy.

And the weak economy is taking its toll on their business in Southwest Florida.

Grand and petty theft cases have become more common over the past year as the ranks of the unemployed steadily rise, according to Laurel Butler, owner of AA Alligator Bail Bonds, which has offices in Fort Myers and Naples. But more people are also struggling to come up with the 10 percent fee or are unable to, she added.

Revenues at AA Alligator are off by 10 percent to 15 percent in 2008, as compared to the first seven months of 2007.

Butler takes time to get to know her clients and their families, even referring them to social service agencies if they have a need.

"Writing bond is a calculated risk," she said. "If I don't like a bond, I don't write it. My criteria may be different than somebody else's criteria or I might write a bond where somebody else might not give that person a chance."

Bondsmen hold the "get-out-of-jail" card, but unlike the game of Monopoly, it's not free. And once they secure your release, your level of freedom may be just a little greater than it was when you were behind bars.

Do what the bail bondsman asks and show up for all your court dates, however, and you'll be fine. Slip up, and you could be headed back to the slammer.

When a person is arrested, the court can require they post bail to assure that, if released, they will appear for court dates. Amounts can range from a few hundred dollars to $1 million or more, depending on the severity of the offense.

There are two options for posting bail. You can pay the entire amount in cash at the jail or you can hire a bondsman who guarantees the money will be paid if you don't show up in court.

State law governs much of what bondsmen do. They must graduate from a bail bond school and pass state tests to get their licenses. Today, bail bondsmen must also successfully complete a one-year internship to become licensed. The Florida Department of Financial Services oversees the profession because it is considered to be a form of insurance, explained department spokesperson Nina Bannister.

In Florida, they all charge a nonrefundable fee of 10 percent of the bail amount - with a minimum fee of $100 - to get someone out of jail.

The severity of the charges, a person's ties to the community and whether they are employed are a few of the factors that help determine how much, if any, collateral may be required and how closely a client is monitored, according to area bail bondsmen.

Gauging the risk of flight, the likelihood of someone appearing for hearings and whether they are a repeat customer can also determine whether a bondsman will take someone on as a client.

That risk can be a stress inducer, said Onil Martinez, owner of Second Chance Bail Bonds, which has offices in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Collier County, Punta Gorda and Sarasota. "Sometimes you don't sleep at night," he added.

Some bail bondsmen may only see dollar signs when they receive a call for assistance.

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