Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Economy Affecting Bail Business

Like many businessmen, Vince Gaskin's cell phone is strapped to his side and he is reachable day and night. He sorts through piles of paperwork and regularly meets with clients.

But unlike a typical businessman, Gaskin often meets with clients through a cell block window at 3 or 4 a.m.

"During the day it's pretty calm. Evenings are busier," Gaskin said. "We're like fireman waiting for the bell to go off."

But the stalled economy is taking a toll on Gaskin and others in the bail bonds business.

"One of the problems I'm seeing are the jails becoming overcrowded. With the economy the way it is, people can't afford to get out of jail," said Don Collins, a second-generation bondsman and owner of A-Harden Bail Bonding in Stuart.

Crime goes up when the economy is bad. But like any other businesses, bondsmen's customers have less money. That means fewer people who are arrested can find the cash or collateral due to the bondsmen in order to post bond and get them out of jail.

And that translates to less money for bondsmen, who already fight a tough economic battle because they can't compete based on price and have clients that can skip town — leaving the bondsmen out large amounts of money.

Bondsmen collect a non-refundable fee from a friend or family member to get the client out of jail. Collateralmight be required depending on how much the bail is set for. This is meant as a type of insurance for the bondsman to recoup their costs since they are ultimately liable for the full amount of the bond.

Bondsmen are backed by insurance companies to ensure they meet their financial obligations to the courts. Insurance companies put a portion of the bondsman's fee into what's called a build up fund. Accrued funds in this account are used if the bondsman is unable to recoup the full amount of the bond.

Bondsmen's fees are governed by Florida State Law, which requires them to collect 10 percent of any bail amount greater than $1,000, or $100 for each offense $1,000 or less.

There are more than 50 bail bond agencies on the Treasure Coast, so marketing is essential because the businesses cannot differentiate themselves based on price.

"People just want who will get them out the quickest with the least amount of hassle," said Gaskin, who has owned and operated Vince Gaskin's Bail Bonds — which has locations in Stuart, Fort Pierce and Vero Beach — since 1999.

Some bondsmen have Web sites, sponsor basketball and soccer leagues, or even golf tournaments to get their name out. Some also feel being in a close proximity to the jail makes a difference, although Ryan Collins, a 25-year-old bondsman, is a firm believer that having a good rapport with people makes a difference.

"You have to offer good customer service," said Ryan Collins, who is the son of Don Collins.

All bondsmen complete a series of training courses and schooling, and are required to have a 1-year internship with a licensed bondsman before becoming licensed themselves. Additionally, they have to complete seven hours of continued education each year, where they receive training on self-defense, handcuff techniques and how to use a gun.

If someone fails to appear for court, bondsmen have up to 60 days to produce their client or the bondsmen must pay the full amount of the bond. Bondsmen then have the authority to track down these "skips" — as they are called in the business — for something called a "pick up," said Gaskin, who lost his bid for St. Lucie County Commission District 1 in the August primary.

"Our client's paperwork is our warrant," Gaskin said. "By signing the paperwork, they are giving us the authority to arrest them any time of the day, any where."

In September, Gaskin, along with two of his private investigators traveled to Puerto Rico for a client that was out on a $30,000 bond.

If someone flees, the decision to go after them is handled on a case-by-case basis. Deciding whether to make a pick up depends on the amount of the bond and what information the bondsman has to work with.

"We lose a lot of money. Bail bondsmen take a lot of losses. If I had every dime that was due to me, I'd probably take a break for 10 years," Gaskin said.

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