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Bail bonds bill decreases school funding

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By Amber Revels-Stocks
The Times-Leader

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Pitt County Schools could see a significant decrease in revenue thanks to a bill to make it easier for bail bonds agents to avoid paying forfeitures.

Since the bill came into effect this month, PCS has already seen a loss of $52,000.

When a defendant is charged with a crime, the state often sets a bond to serve as insurance that the defendant will come to trial. The most common method of posting bond is to pay a bail bonds agent 10 percent of the bond.

If the defendant fails to appear in court, the state constitution gives the public school system the right to receive the forfeited bail money unless one of seven conditions is met, according to Pitt County Schools in-house counsel Emma Hodson.

Previously, the only way bond would not be forfeited is if charges were cleared, the defendant surrendered to a law enforcement agency or was arrested, the defendant died or the defendant was in prison at the time of the failure to appear, according to Hodson.

Session Law 2018-120 changed this.

“This is an omnibus legislation pertaining to insurance,” Hodson said. “It’s a 40-page document and less than a quarter of a page is a change to the bail bond statute.”

This change states that if the defendant was not in jail at the time of the failure to appear, but is placed in jail any time between the failure to appear and 150 days after when the school system can claim the money, the bond remains with the bail bonds agent.

This bill went into effect on Oct. 1 in Pitt County. Hodson reviewed a case where a defendant failed to appear at court but was not incarcerated. He was out of jail 51 days before heading to another state. He committed a crime and was arrested there.

“Without this change, the bail bondsman would have had more of an incentive to catch him and bring him back,” Hodson said.

Pitt County Schools lost the $52,000 bond forfeiture despite the defendant not having been tried for his crime in North Carolina.

“I am tracking this data,” Hodson said. “(The $52,000 loss) is just what I saw last week. I expect the amount to increase over time.”

In the 2016-17 fiscal year, the district recovered $589,178 in bond forfeitures, according to Hodson. That money went into local funds, which helps pay for professional development, operations and facilities and supplemental pay, according to chief finance officer Debra Baggett.

It is estimated that the new bill will cut the amount of bond forfeitures the district receives in half, according to information Hodson shared from N.C. Policy Watch.

“We’ve budgeted $750,000, so it would be a budget shortfall,” Baggett said. “At the point when we did our budget, we didn’t know it would have that much of an impact on us. It’s not like we’d pay for something extra. It could possibly result in cuts to what we’re already doing.”

At the time, Baggett said she is not making any cuts.

When the bills initially passed the state legislature, the District Attorneys Association and the Council of School Attorneys began to lobby Gov. Roy Cooper to veto the bill. He did so on June 25.

“Adding another excuse to set aside a bond forfeiture when a criminal defendant fails to appear in court hurts school funding and reduces incentives to ensure justice is served,” Cooper said about his veto.

However, the General Assembly overrode the veto.

The majority of the omnibus bill that contained the change related to the health insurance industry, according to Hodson.

“It was not a rushed bill or anything like that,” Hodson said. “Bail bondsmen are the ones who benefit from this. There’s less incentive for people charged with a crime to be brought to trial.”

School board member Benjie Forrest recommended finding out how the change was placed into the bill.

“Most of the time when something like that is included in an omnibus bill, it’s because it will not stand on its own,” Forrest said. “It’d probably be advantageous to find out how that slipped in there.”

School board member Betsy Flanagan said she was worried about losing a source of revenue that did not come from taxpayer money and how it would be replaced. Meanwhile, school board member Carolyn Doherty worried the change would make it easier for defendants to not stand trial.

Hodson encouraged the board members to talk to their professional associations and state legislatures to bring Session Law 2018-120 back before the General Assembly and amend the language.

“Can we get a document written from us as a board and have us all sign it and send to the General Assembly? Or a memo from each of us?” school board member Robert Moore asked Chairwoman Mildred Council.

Board member Worth Forbes added the board should we attach Hodson’s data to the document.

Council agreed it needed to be looked into for the next board meeting, which will be Nov. 5.

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