With little to no debate, the House voted 129-7 to give final passage Thursday night to a bill that reforms the bail bond system. The industry had been successful in beating back similar reform efforts for the past eight years, but recent incidents of domestic violence seemed to trump the industry’s concerns.
The bill prohibits the practice of “undercutting,” which happens when bondsmen don’t charge the statutorily required premium amount to their clients.
Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said undercutting has serious consequences.
Undercutting is responsible in part for the murder of Shengyl Rasim, Flexer said. The West Haven resident was shot by her husband, Selami Ozdemir, in 2010 as she held her crying infant in her arms. Ozdemir, despite having his bail set at $25,000, was released immediately by a bail bondsman without putting up any funds.
The bill requires defendants to provide a downpayment of no less than a 35 percent of the total premium on a bond. Lawmakers are hoping the measure limits the number of violent incidents that occur when individuals are released from jail too quickly.
“With about 30 percent of criminal court dockets involving domestic violence, it is important that we do everything possible to protect victims during each step of the judicial process,” said Rep. Gerald Fox III, co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “With better enforcement of our bail bond laws, particularly ensuring minimum premiums are charged by bondsmen, we will reduce the number of offenders that get quickly released before a cooling off period.”
“These reforms — long overdue — put the safety of the victims first,” said Flexer. “The current system did not adequately protect the victims of domestic violence. Defendants were let out of jail for less money than the judge ordered — meaning bail could be set at $1 million, but they could be released without paying a cent if a bondsman was willing to post the bond for free.”
The bill also gives the Insurance Department greater regulatory authority over the 459 bail bond agents and 133 bail bond agencies operating in the state.
The Insurance Department’s Deb Korta, who was rendered speechless by the bill’s speedy passage Thursday, said it also provides them with a funding mechanism that enables the department to do the necessary audits and provide the necessary oversight.
And in order to prevent disruptive behavior, it prohibits bail bondsmen from soliciting business inside courthouses, police stations, correctional institutions, and other detention centers.
Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, said she’s trying to get the solicitation ban removed through another piece of legislation. She said not allowing bail bondsmen into courts and police stations would be like telling a lawmakers they couldn’t go into the House chamber to take a vote on a bill.
While the recommendation this year came from the Domestic Violence Task Force, previous reforms were prompted by other situations.
In 2008, one year after a federal investigation brought down New Haven’s most prominent bail bonds family and more than four years after a nonpartisan office found the potential for corruption in Connecticut’s bail bond system, lawmakers proclaimed that was the year the legislature was going to take action to reform the corrupt bail bond system. Then-Rep. Michael Lawlor, who co-chaired the Judiciary Committee, proposed legislation which would transfer oversight of the state’s troubled bail bond system to the Public Safety Department and require routine training of bail bondsmen.
The bill passed Thursday gives the Insurance Department oversight of the industry.
It now goes to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk for the governor’s signature.