Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Bill Would Allow Va. Bail Help Only For Poor

A bill quietly rolling through the General Assembly would put an end to what supporters call taxpayer-funded get-out-of-jail-free passes for criminals who can afford to pay their own bail. Opponents argue it is nothing more than a ploy by bail bondsmen to increase profits.

Commercial bail bondsmen are pushing the measure to limit pretrial services, where the state pays for criminals to be released before their court hearing, to only those offenders who cannot afford to post their own bond. They argue tax dollars should not be used to bail out those who can afford to pay their own way or to compete with private business.

Pretrial services supporters say freedom shouldn't depend on someone's ability to pay, and that their programs save the state and local governments money because it's cheaper than housing minor offenders in overcrowded jails.

The bill passed out of the House last month on a 63-36 vote. The Senate Courts of Justice Committee, which killed a similar measure earlier in the session, could consider the bill on Wednesday.

Pretrial services supporters say they fear legislators will reverse course amid pressure by supporters of the bill, who are running commercials statewide and touting the bill as a way to save the state millions as lawmakers franticly try to reconcile a $4 billion state budget shortfall.

"Schools are facing devastating cuts. Medicaid is facing devastating cuts, and here we have people being released who should be paying their own way," said Pat Edmonson, a lobbyist for Virginians for the Preservation of Bail.

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