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Report Finds Bail Practices Need Reform

5-22-14

By Christie Duffy
Correspondent

The Short Hills Mall shooting in December took the life of a young lawyer. He was opening the car door for his wife, when armed carjackers shot him in the head.

Investigators say one of the gunmen responsible was Hanif Thompson.

But according to the findings of a new state investigation, this tragedy could have been avoided.

Just days prior, Thompson was behind bars. He was being held on a separate burglary charge. And he was being held on $50,000 bond. But the bail got knocked down, by more than half, to only $20,000.

The state’s report also says that thanks to one of the biggest bail-bond agencies in New Jersey, Thompson walked free after posting just 1 percent of his total bail, a mere $200.

“It’s frankly shocking that such a small percentage of someone’s bail package can be put down to secure someone’s release,” said Commission of Investigation Executive Director Philip James Degnan.

The report details a business tactic that investigators say is systemic throughout the state. Phone calls between bond agents and inmates, where agents allegedly offer cash and favors for behind bars business referrals.

Inmate: “I’m lost. What do you mean ‘get a bail?’ That’s what I don’t understand, sir.”

K.W.: “Yeah, find me somebody in that jail that needs to be bailed out.”

Inmate: “Oh, you want somebody else to get bailed out.”

K.W.: “Yeah. How am I supposed to get paid? Am I going to do this all for nothing? Just to help people?”

The report says some bail bondsmen are operating without a license, and some are convicted criminals. An attorney for some of the biggest bail bondsman in the state, says not his clients, adding they are open to sitting down with regulators.

“There are a number of recommendations here that the industry can live with. There are a number of recommendations here the industry has been asking them to do for years. So now at least hopefully this will open up a dialogue and they’ll allow us to sit at the table to go through some of these issues,” said Richard P. Blender, attorney for Bail Bond Cos.

The report lists at least two cases where county authorities called to notify the industry regulator of alleged misconduct. But the report says the Department of Banking and Insurance never responded.

The Department of Banking and Insurance did respond to our request for comment, stating, “The SCI report inaccurately asserts that DOBI considers bail bonds regulation to be a low priority.”

The state Commission on Investigation is now calling on the state legislature and the governor to consider making many of these practices criminal. And they want oversight of the industry switched from the Department of Banking and Insurance to the Attorney General’s Office.