Bail funds help the poor get out of prison. Lawyers say Pennsylvania bill could shut them down

As the former head of the nation’s main bail bond industry group lobbies lawmakers, a bill that would treat nonprofits that release people from pretrial detention the same as For-profit businesses quickly and quietly moved forward in Harrisburg this month.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, was featured on November 3 without a memo outlining what he would do in layman’s terms.

The House Judiciary Committee sent the proposal to the entire House last Tuesday, and it was passed by the entire House. 111-88 this Tuesday – a quick turnaround of just two weeks between the introduction of the bill and its approval.

Supporters of the bill say nonprofits, known as surety funds, exist in a loophole of state law and should be registered and regulated in some way. . But those who run the nonprofits say the bill is just an attempt to end a focused community effort to challenge mass incarceration.

In a statement to the Capital-Star on behalf of Pennsylvania’s eight nonprofit bail funds, Malik Neal, executive director of the Philadelphia Bail Fund, said the bill would not only hinder their work, but also prevent individuals, community groups and churches help incarcerated people on an ad hoc basis.

“We are among the main advocates of our communities in organizing a change in our criminal justice system,” said Neal. “Every legislator and public servant who thinks our current system is unfair should support us in rejecting this bill. “

The bill would require any individual or group who pays a bond for more than three individuals in thirty days to acquire a Licence of the State Insurance Department. They have to pay a $ 125 fee to apply and get a credit check and criminal background check.

State regulations too require that the serfs maintain a “suitable place of business in a fixed place”. If someone gives up their bond and the fund does nothing, then the local district attorney could revoke their license.

These new requirements are similar to what the chief surety industry lobbyist suggested state lawmakers limit surety funds in a December 2020 memo seen by the Capital-Star. The former executive director of the industry group, Nick Wachinski, is a registered lobbyist in Pennsylvania.

“It’s actually a giveaway to the surety industry and prevents anyone from just trying to help people get out of jail,” State Representative Emily Kinkead D-Allegheny told the Capital. Star of the legislation.

It all revolves around bail, or a practice in which people arrested and charged with a crime are asked to pay a price, set by a judge, to leave pre-trial detention in prison.

Those who can pay can leave for free, those who cannot have to stay behind bars, sometimes waiting months to go to court.

Cash Surety Explained: How It Works & Why Criminal Justice Reformers Want To Get Rid Of It

For those who cannot afford to post a bond but want to get out of prison, there is a third option: go to a third party lender to get a bond.

Individuals can pay the surety company a non-refundable premium – generally no more than 10 percent of their total bond. The company then guarantees the balance to the court, allowing the individual to leave freely.

If the accused returns for his appearance, the serf keeps this bonus as profit. If the accused does not participate in the legal process, the company will attempt to make the individual pay the remainder of the bond.

But community funds that pool donations from concerned citizens have served as an alternative to these for-profit ventures, and funds have seen a resurgence in recent years.

Interest fund tends to rise in times of political turmoil, such as the recent protests against police violence and for racial justice as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

There are at least eight such funds in Pennsylvania, including four in Philadelphia, as well as one in Pittsburgh, Lancaster, Dauphin County and Montgomery County. Many have been involved in efforts to free those arrested during the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd and to get people out of dangerous detention conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The funds can also provide services to individuals to help them attend court, such as reminders, transportation, and connections to other social services. Once the accused appears before the judge again, the fund gets their money back.

“We are a huge benefit to their communities and to the safety of all,” said Neal. “Unlike bail serfs, we don’t exist to profit from the caging of our friends, relatives and neighbors. “

The magnitude of these funds is difficult to measure. In an annual report Last year, the Philadelphia Bail Fund said it released 401 people from pre-trial detention by posting $ 2 million bail. Other funds have not publicly shared similar information.

But the efforts of the Philadelphia Bail Funds represent only a tenth of 1% of the $ 14 billion in bonds deposited by private companies, according to a 2017 estimate. These companies then made $ 2 billion in profits from these loans.

Klunk told the Capital-Star that his bill was needed to fill loopholes in the state’s bail laws. The bill, she added, would increase liability in the event that someone whose bail has been paid by a non-profit organization escapes trial.

“They are essentially posing as a bail bond. It just happens to be a non-profit agency, ”Klunk told Capital-Star. “So they should be required to have insurance and go through these checks to make sure everything is flawless.”

The bill would not prevent funds from providing social services to those recently released from prison, Klunk added.

She added that she had spoken to several people in the justice system, including judges, district attorneys and the surety industry.

Klunk did not specify who she consulted with, and state lobbying laws do not require lobbyists to disclose what topics or laws they are lobbying. But Capitol sources have named Wachinski as a likely supporter of the proposal.

Wachinski was executive director of the American Bail Coalition, an industrial group that defenders to “protect the constitutional right to bail by working with local and state policymakers to bring best practices to the release system pending trial.”

He was also CEO of Lexington National Insurance Corporation, a surety company, according to testimony he given in the State Senate in 2016.

Today he works for the Harrisburg lobbying firm Bigley and Blikle. His company’s bio does not include his time at the American Bail Coalition, but he notes that he “worked with other stakeholders in a broad coalition to unanimously pass Bill 16 of 2015 ”, an earlier overhaul of state bail laws signed by the government. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

According to the call, the law removed a cap on the maximum bond fee agents can charge, among other industry-friendly changes.

Among Wachinski’s current clients, according to State Department records, are at least four surety companies, including his former employer Lexington, American Surety Company and Bankers Insurance.

He is also a regular Republican campaign donor, according to state campaign finance records.

Since 2019, he has given $ 16,750 to House Republicans – half of whom went to the caucus campaign committee – and $ 20,250 to Senate Republicans, most of whom went to the two Lancaster County GOP senators. .

Although Wachinski’s name is not on the coalition’s list website, these contributions always indicate that his employer is ABC.

Wachinski did not respond to a request for comment. But in an unanswered December 2020 memo from the American Bail Coalition, the group called for action against the bail funds.

Prior to 2020, the note says, the funds were “often small community organizations” that only helped “non-violent crime cases.”

But after a year of racial justice protests, these “warlord” groups had swelled, according to the memo, and were “now a major issue in bail and interim release.”

“Lawmakers should require, at a minimum, the authorization of surety funds and those who post sureties in court, that the defendant be indigent and in need of charitable surety, and restrict the nature of the charges and the size sureties for which a fund surety can deposit obligations for the defendants, ”said the note.

A rewrite of Texas bail law sign this fall also tried to regulate these nonprofit organizations. The law requires funds to register with their county and declare to whom they are providing financial support.

Since the Pennsylvania bill was introduced on November 3, it has followed a generally slow legislative process, although its supporters have not been able to indicate a specific need for licensing requirements or d ‘negative impacts of a surety fund.

During the committee vote on November 9, Kinkead asked Klunk and House Judicial Speaker Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, why the bill was needed.

“What problem arose? What history of security breaches can be linked to these nonprofit pro bono bond funds? Kinkead said.

Neither Kauffman nor Klunk could offer a concrete example. But because the decision-maker of a surety fund “does not have this professional experience in this area, it could potentially create problems,” she argued.

The answer was not good enough for Kinkead.

“This is a five-day-old bill aimed at solving a problem that they believe does not exist,” Kinkead told Capital-Star later today.

Kauffman did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus either.

The bill was changed slightly on the floor of the House this week. On Monday, the chamber unanimously approved an amendment to extend the implementation deadline by 120 days.

However, a Democratic amendment to raise the licensing threshold from three people helped to 75 failed.

The bill is now heading to the Senate. In an email, a spokesperson for Wolf said his office is still reviewing the bill.

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