Courtesy of CT-N
Superior Court Judge Robert Devlin (Courtesy of CT-N)

HARTFORD, CT — Last week, a committee of state Superior Court judges unanimously approved a new rule allowing low-income defendants to post 10% of their bond in cash to a police department or the court if the bond amount is $20,000 or less.

Detractors say the judges’ decision circumvents the will of the General Assembly and likely will cost the state’s bond industry about 50% of their business.

“This is a big change and something that would have taken a long time in the legislature,” Sentencing Commission Executive Director Alex Tsarkov said. “Primarily it will help the indigent make bond. Most people who receive a bond go through a bail bondsman and the fee goes to the bond industry. The difference with 10% cash bond, is when the case is done, they get it back.”

The change, which will go into effect January 2020, will allow hundreds of people who previously would be sitting in jail because they can’t afford to pay bondsmen fees while their case is pending, he said.

“Ideally the amount of money a person does, or does not have, should play no role in who is being detained,” Tsarkov said.

The state bond industry, which stands to lose 50% of its business according to the Bail Association of Connecticut (BAC), challenged the logic behind the change claiming that it will lead to defendants absconding rather than appearing in court and that any money collected will wind up in state coffers.

“More importantly, the whole reason for this change is to help the indigent — that was the pretense of this change,” said Andrew Marocchini, president of the BAC. “The 10% option does nothing to help these individuals whatsoever. We’ll see 50% of our industry wiped out but it would be a much easier pill to swallow if it actually helped people.”

Marocchini’s stance is that few indigent defendants will be able to come up with the 10% required. For a $10,000 bond, a bondsman will get $850 from a client, which can be paid in installments. At the end of the case, the bondsman keeps the money as a fee.

In the meantime, the bondsman will put up the remaining money if a client skips out on court and will go looking for clients to ensure they don’t miss appearances, he said. “The whole premise of having a surety bond is that you are involving more than funds,” Marocchini said.

Relatives will put up collateral, such as their homes, making it more difficult for a defendant to take off.

“There’s an incentive for showing up,” he said. “Under the new change, they could post bond and there is no incentive to come back.”

Based on a 2017 law, defendants can already exercise the 10% cash option if their bond is lower than $20,000 and a judge grants it. The option was rarely used, Tsarkov said. The Sentencing Commission sought a change to state law in 2017 to allow all defendants with bonds of $20,000 or less the 10% option. But the legislature only agreed to it with the approval of a judge.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, sent the Rules Committee a letter taking no position on the change but pointing out that the legislature had already addressed the issue, with a different result.

The change that was considered and recommended by the Rules Committee of the Superior Court, a judicial body made up entirely of judges, allowed all defendants to automatically have the 10% cash option if they so choose.

The court would hold the money and return it at the end of the case. If a defendant doesn’t show up, the money is forfeited and the person is on the hook for the other 90% of the bond as well.

The Rules Committee oversees changes in the state’s legal practice book — the extensive document that provides guidance over all court proceedings — and then makes recommendations to the entire body of Superior Court judges that meet once a year. The entire body approved the change June 13 during their annual meeting.

“It’s an additional option,” said Superior Court Judge Robert Devlin, who chairs the Sentencing Commission. “It doesn’t preclude hiring a bondsman.”

Devlin said he thinks the change is a positive step that will help people who must rely on family and friends to bond them out. “If their family and friends believe they will get the money back, they are more likely to lend it,” he said.

Devlin foresees more people being able to remain free during pre-trial proceedings as a result of the change. The state’s prison population has dropped from 18,000 over the past decade to below 13,000 this year, he said. But the number of people being held on bond for pre-trial cases has remained fairly steady at about 3,300.

“You can have a judge looking at all the factors and the person who can come up with $500 is out but the one who can’t is in,” Devlin said. “It’s about economics. This is about the ability of people to have options.”