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Pennsylvania Lawmakers Back Commercial Bail

In the waning months of 2009 The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a series of articles exposing the chronic problems plaguing the criminal justice system in the City of Brotherly Love.  For a period of decades there had been rampant witness intimidation, an ineffective deposit bail system costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars and a list of outstanding warrants that would put the white pages to shame.  Significant changes were desperately needed.  Thanks to members of the private sector and Pennsylvania legislators interested in public safety and accountability for bad actors, changes to the bail system have arrived in the form of SB397.

Change doesn’t happen on its own.  In the case of SB397, change took five long years and was spearhead by Nick Wachinski, outgoing Executive Director of the American Bail Coalition and Pennsylvania resident.  Nick began working with legislators soon after the Inquirer went to print on its expose of Philadelphia’s criminal justice system and a couple years before he took the Executive Director post at ABC.  My hat’s off to Nick and ABC for their dedication and tenacity to effect change in Pennsylvania’s broken bail system.  It was a text book example of how a successful legislative initiative.

What does SB397 contain?  This enacted legislation requires all bail agents to be appointed by an approved surety insurer.  It provides for a 90 day forfeiture period with a tiered remission period to incentivize bail agents to continue to pursue clients who have absconded to avoid prosecution even after a bond has been paid.

SB397 is not without a hammer.  To emphasize a “produce or pay” environment, failure to pay judgments arising out of an inability to timely produce a defendant will result in the suspension or revocation of the bail agent’s license to write.  The bail agent’s surety may be subject to administrative penalties if an unpaid judgement goes unresolved.  Rules are necessary.  Penalties for failure to perform are expected in the private sector.

With the enactment of SB397, the majority of the Pennsylvania Legislature demonstrated their belief the prerequisite to any functioning criminal justice system is the appearance of the criminal defendant at trial.  That the use of bail bonds to provide a financial guarantee of a defendant’s appearance in court gives the justice system the best chance for success.  This bill received a unanimous floor vote in the Senate and a near unanimous vote in the House.  Governor Tom Wolf signed SB397 into law, July 2, 2015.  The changes become effective October 31, 2015.

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Click here to read a recent press release from the American Bail Coalition on their new Executive Director.