Many people’s perception of bail bondsmen may be skewed by images of them as bounty hunters who will use devious tactics to bring in someone who has jumped bail.
“People think of bail bondsmen as bounty hunters, and that is not the way it is,” said Patti Smith, executive director for the Mississippi Bail Agents Association (MBAA). “The bail enforcement side of it is only about 10% of what the bonding business is all about. What people don’t see is the part of bail agents that helps people. Bail agents help people who have never been in trouble before. They help people keep up with their court dates. They help people know what to expect when they go to court and how to act in court. The bail bond business is just like any other business. You have those who are real professional and you have those who are not. You can have that in any kind of business.”
Critical link in system
In a judicial system where people charged with a crime are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty, the bond system is critical to allow people freedom until the case can come to trial giving an opportunity to mount a defense.
“People can go file charges on you for any reasons, whether you did it or not,” Smith said. “Then it is your responsibility to prove you didn’t do it. It isn’t innocent until guilty, but guilty until proven innocent. That isn’t fair. It makes it hard on people who really do have grounds to charge people. Judges and police officers deal with so much every day. Sometimes it is hard to determine what is true and not true because there is so much crime out there. As bail bondsmen, all we can do is help people who have a right to a bond.”
Smith said most of the time, people who post bonds make their court dates. But often the public only hears about the ones who don’t.
In her six years working as a bondsman before becoming executive director of MBAA, Smith said her experience was that most of the people who need bond are not bad people. They simply may have made a mistake.
“In the bonding business, it isn’t your place to judge them,” Smith said. “It is just your place to make sure they go to court and that the victims have their day in court.”
Often it isn’t people with large felony bonds who miss their court dates. Smith said the ones who don’t go to court are usually charged with smaller offenses like driving under the influence of alcohol or driving with suspending license.
“The misdemeanor bonds are what you have trouble with,” Smith said. “Felonies and big bonds, they usually do what they are supposed to do.”
Running the risks
Bail bondsmen take on a major financial liability when they get people out of jail. When a bondsman writes a $10,000 bond, the person charged pays $1,000. But if that person doesn’t show up in court, the bondsman has to pay $10,000.
“I don’t think people realize there is a big financial liability in what they do,” Smith said.
Bail bondsmen have education requirements, and are licensed. A couple of years ago, the law was changed requiring bail bondsmen in Mississippi to have 40 hours of pre-licensing education. Each year, bondsmen must take eight hours of continuing education to renew their license.
“That assures people are professionals,” Smith said. “It makes them knowledgeable of laws that may have changed, and how to work with judges and court officers. We show them all that in the education.”
There are three types of bonding agents. A professional agent is a person who has taken the pre-licensing classes and passed the state licensing test. Most of the time professional agents own their companies. Soliciting agents have taken the classes but haven’t yet passed the test. They work under the supervision for a professional agent. Bail enforcement agents also work under the supervision of a professional agent.
In addition to being authorized by state statute to approve pre-license and continuing education in the state, the MBAA has a lobbyist, Al Sage, who works with legislators to pass laws that allow agents to do the right thing in the right way. The MBAA also works to improve the image of the profession.
“The MBAA board is made up of 21 members located throughout the state,” Smith said. “These men and women have worked very hard to get to this point and I feel they should be congratulated. This is certainly a story of hard work and dedication. These 21 people do not get paid for the work they do. They do it because they believe in it.”
In existence now since 1991, in September the MBAA passed a major milestone by opening its first office.
Jimmy Hodge, Biloxi, president of MBAA, said MBAA has helped the profession achieve a higher standard.
“Today, I see professional bail agents dedicated to preserving this industry and the public’s perception of the need for private bail agents,” Hodge said. “Since its inception, the MBAA has grown from a small group of concerned bondsmen to an influential force recognized in all circles across the state. Our goals are to protect, promote and preserve our profession by empowering the bail agent while raising the awareness of the necessity of the industry.”
Hodge said Mississippi is known to have some of the best bail laws in the country. Since MBAA began working with the state legislature to upgrade the bail laws, the organization has been successful in adding new laws and changing old ones. “Numerous bail laws have been passed and enacted that have had a profound effect and brought a new era of professionalism to an ‘open’ market,” Hodge said. “Since 1992, there have only been two years in which the MBAA did not succeed at making changes to the state bail statutes.”
Bail agents in Mississippi are regulated by the Mississippi Department of Insurance. A license is required to write bonds and to do bail recoveries.
“Along with the criminal defense attorney, we help to protect an individual’s constitutional right to remain innocent until proven guilty by a court of law while at the same time protecting victims’ rights by insuring they get their day in court and insuring the defendant’s appearance,” Hodge said.
For more information about MBAA, visit the Web site www.msbail.org.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.