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Report: Virginia's bail bond industry often avoids accountability

FILE - This July 7, 2015, file photo, shows a sign advertising a bail bonds business.
Kathy Willens
FILE - This July 7, 2015, file photo, shows a sign advertising a bail bonds business.

A new report takes aim at an industry that makes money by promising to return defendants to court. But, it's often law enforcement agencies that end up doing the work.

The promise of the bail bond industry has always been that they provide a valuable service – making sure defendants actually show up for their day in court.

"The way that we think that commercial bail, money bail, works is not really how it works in reality," says Wanda Bertram at the Prison Policy Institute, which recently issued a report showing how the bail bond industry avoids accountability.

"We're told that money bail companies face accountability when their clients don't show up for their hearings. In reality, they almost never do. And in large part that's because of loopholes in the bail forfeiture process, as it's called, the process of holding bail companies accountable."

Shawn Weneta at the ACLU of Virginia says it's often local law enforcement who ends up doing the work.

"It is very few and far between when the bail bondsman is actually going out and apprehending a person that is wanted by the courts," Weneta says. "It is not Dog the Bounty Hunter type of things that we saw on television. It is really local law enforcement that's doing the work."

Virginia has a patchwork of different customs and practices on how people are bonded out of jail. In many places, prosecutors ran on a platform of ending cash bail. In other places, it's a tradition that continues, at least until the General Assembly takes some kind of action to reform the system.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.