It came as a complete surprise when, in the wake of the slaying of four Lakewood police officers, it was revealed that their murderer was released from jail three times that year without ever paying more than 4 percent of his bail amount up front.
Most people — prosecutors and judges included — were under the mistaken assumption that a criminal defendant must post 10 percent of the bail amount before gaining his or her release.
Voters in November closed one bail loophole when they approved House Joint Resolution 4220, a constitutional amendment allowing judges to deny bail in certain circumstances such as when the defendant is facing life in prison without the possibility of parole or there is convincing evidence of a propensity for violence that would likely endanger the public.
A whopping 84.6 percent of the voters approved the amendment setting the tougher bail standards.
The Legislature recognized that there were other loopholes in the law and appointed a task force to look into the matter.
Snohomish County prosecutor Mark Roe said some of his fellow task force members were “disillusioned” they didn’t know bail bondsmen required less than 10 percent to bail a client out of jail. “To be honest, I was embarrassed,” he told the Seattle Times.
Unfortunately, the task force was unable to come to agreement on a recommendation to set a 10 percent minimum for bail bonds. Instead the task force’s report recommended that the 2011 Legislature come up with “a generally recognized definition of what bail means, subject to further discussion.”
In other words, the task force punted.
The members did suggest giving judges more information about people seeking bail, such as risk-prediction tools from the Department of Corrections and mental health records. Bondsmen also should be required to go through background checks and county court systems — which verify bail-bonding companies — could be required to tell each other whether bail-bond companies are on shaky financial footing.
We agree with Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, who favors a minimum payment for bail bonds. Without it, bail bondsmen are effectively setting bail instead of judges, Carrell said. “If judges can’t have some certainty, then how can they ever set bail to ensure community protection?” Carrell asked.
He’s right. In the interim, before lawmakers act, judges can set an amount of cash bail required to release a defendant from custody. That would provide certainty rather than today’s system where some bondsmen are letting people out of jail on a fraction of the amount set by the court.