A Family Business Is Focused On Releasing People From Jail, Keeping The Community Safe
Staci Kisner is the owner of Bill’s Bail Bonds, one of the largest bail bonds businesses in West Virginia.
“I think misconceptions are people thinking we're just trying to get their money. You know what I mean? And I'm not saying there's some bail bondsman that are, you know, kind of crooked,” she said.
When someone is arrested in the state, a judge may decide that bail is necessary to ensure that the person accused will return to stand trial. If the person has the money to pay bail in full, they get it returned to them after all their court cases. If they don’t, they have the option of paying 10% to a bail bondsman, who guarantees they will show up for court. The bail bondsman keeps the 10% whether the person shows up or not.
Kisner files surety bonds with clients, which is simply a three-party agreement between the court, the bondsman and the person accused. If that person fails to appear, the bondsman, who is the surety, is responsible for finding them and bringing them back to the court. This takes the burden off of the court so that taxpayer money is not used to find someone. Kisner says that this reason alone is important enough for the bail bonds industry to stay afloat.
And that’s what she and her family have been doing for the last 17 years.
“We try to build it on being genuine, respecting the clients,” she said. “Yes, they're criminals, but they're still people. So we respect them and we try to treat them like that.”
It’s also important to maintain a working relationship with the court systems even in times of disagreement, according to Kisner.
“And we try to treat the courts accordingly because you can't make the courts mad. Now there's times I really have to bite my tongue with them. But you know you have to consider that, too,” she said.
In her office in downtown Morgantown, canvas signs reading “imagine,” “dream” and “believe” decorate the walls. A range of books fill the bookshelf next to her desk with books like “Hope for Today Bible,” a dictionary, thesaurus and a business owner’s law guide. A chart sits on her desk covered in ink from top to bottom with names, phone numbers and locations of people who are seeking services from Bill’s Bail Bonds.
The business has been in her family since 2004. Bill, the business’s namesake, opened it that year and his daughter took the reins when he retired in 2018. It’s evident that family is important to her by the numerous photos of her children, nieces and nephews that sit in frames throughout her office.
“My daughter works here, my son works here and then my nephew works here. And that's in the main office. And then we have agents throughout the county,” she said.
The data at the county level is sparse, so it’s not known exactly what percent of incarcerated people who are released pretrial don’t show back up for court. However, Kisner’s belief is that the bail bonds industry saves people money. In 2019, the Pretrial Justice Institute studied 91 jurisdictions and found that 63% of jurisdictions surveyed either did not collect data on court appearances or did not know whether they did.
“So if they don't show up for PR bonds, then the state, the county has to spend their time and money to go hunt these people down. Whereas when we do a surety bond, if they don't show up for court, we're responsible to go get them,” she said.
“That doesn’t cost the taxpayer any money. We go get them and return them to the court. And once we return them to the court, then the courts do whatever they decide to do with them.”
As states across the country have begun to reform or abolish the money bail system, the bail bonds industry has fought back.
In West Virginia, HB 2419 was the legislature’s attempt at reforming the way judges and magistrates distribute bail. The bill encourages a judge or magistrate to release people charged with certain nonviolent crimes on personal recognizance bonds, instead of charging them with a cash bond.
In part, the bill was supposed to reduce the number of people in regional jails throughout the state. Theoretically, the bill seems like it would hurt the bonds industry, but Kisner said she hasn’t seen too much effect from it.
She said she believes that the court system may regret extensive bail reform because without the bonds industry operating, the burden of keeping track of many people in the justice system will fall on the state.
“And I think that in the long term people or the Senate or whatever are gonna be like, what were we thinking? Because now we have all this, you know, mess. And we don't have anybody, bail bondsman to regulate it.”
Bondsmen have played a role nationally in the bail reform conversation. In California, in 2018, after former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that would eliminate the cash bail system, the American Bail Association PAC ‘Californian’s Against the Reckless Bail Scheme’ raised almost $3 million in a campaign to get signatures on a ballot that would override the bill so the bill never became law.
David Bourne is a bail bondsman in August County, Virginia and a spokesman for the Professional Bail Agents of the United States.
“I've been in the bail industry for 30 years. I was a police officer before that. I've raised two sons, who are police officers, and so I've got some in depth experience at it,” he said.
In addition to his work at PBUS, he’s the president of the Virginia Bail Association and oversees agents in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. He argues what’s broken about the system is not bail itself, it’s profiting in general from incarceration.
He recounts times where he, as a bail bondsman, has had a closer relationship with the incarcerated person and their family than anyone else.
“The missing element is the trust that's built between the bail agent and the defendant or the defendant’s family,” he said. “They will tell us things that they will not tell the police.”
In the instance that someone is struggling with substance use disorder, Bourne said that parents tend to be more comfortable calling the bail bondsman if their child begins to use drugs again instead of the police.
“If we're not in the picture, they're not going to call the police and say, ‘my, son's here with drugs, and he's injecting again.’ They're not going to do that, because the police is going to come, they're going to arrest him for a new drug charge, and send him to jail,” he said.
Bourne discussed indemnity agreements, which are contracts that place a family member responsible for the entire cost of bail if the defendant fails to appear in court. He said these agreements help with ensuring appearance in court.
“The indemnity agreement is about providing some supervision without costing the taxpayer any money. Because if I sign an indemnity agreement, insuring a company that I will protect them for a loss if my son doesn't go to court, then I'm inclined to keep an eye on my son to make sure he doesn't do anything, conduct any kind of behavior, that's going to put me in financial jeopardy,” he said.
As a supporter of the money bail system, Bourne does believe there needs to be a $10,000 cap on assigned bail.
“And we shouldn't look at the defendant's circumstances, where they live or how much money they make to afford that bond. The bond should be determined by evaluating where this person could go,” he said.
One option, listed in West Virginia’s HB 2419 is that judges can sentence people to home confinement with an electronic device monitoring them.
In West Virginia, the price of the electronic monitoring program varies by county. In Kanawha County, the initial installation fee is $50 plus $52 for every week the person is monitored.
As a former police officer, Bourne is also concerned that sometimes magistrates get it wrong. For a lot of people who oppose bail reform, that’s a big deal.
He shared the story of Jasmyne Hayslett, a 19-year-old woman from Staunton, Virginia. She had been in a relationship with 19-year-old Zachary Ham and the two had a baby together.
The News Leader reported that sometime in 2015, the couple split, and on Sept. 22 of that year Hayslett filed a police report accusing Ham of strangling her. He was arrested and charged with misdemeanor domestic assault and an emergency protection order was issued. Ham was released on a $1,000 unsecured bond, which means that he just needed to sign an agreement that if he failed to appear in court, he would owe the $1,000.
Then, less than two weeks later, he shot and killed Hayslett and soon after shot and killed himself. Bourne says that a secured bond or even a refusal of bond could have saved both their lives.
“I can't tell you with 100% certainty that a secured bond would have saved her life. I can certainly tell you that no bond would have saved her life,” he said.
What Bourne and most bail reform advocates can agree on, is that right now, people living in poverty are the ones most affected by the way the system is operating. For people who are unemployed or dealing with substance abuse, it’s harder to even qualify for bail. Not to mention, just a few days in jail could result in losing your job or your house.
Devon Unger, a staff attorney at the West Virginia Innocence Project and former public defender, says as a result, many people living in poverty are forced to take a plea deal, even for crimes they may not have committed just so they can be released from jail.
“I would argue that there are a lot of wrongful convictions, over convictions, or coerced pleas that occur in this country, as a result of pretrial detention due to cash bail,” he said.
Unger recalls times where his clients pleaded their innocence, but accepted a plea agreement from a prosecutor so that they could be released from jail more quickly than if they fought the charge.
“And if the choice is to sit in jail for two or three months, at minimum, to fight your case, until a trial date is available, or take a plea to something you didn't do to get out of jail that day, people are going to take the plea,” he said.
Some states have non-profit organizations helping people currently in jail receive access to wrap-around services and even to help them get out. Anthony Body works as a bail disruptor in Cleveland, Ohio called The Bail Project.
“A bail disrupter, we're just here to disrupt the system,” he said, “It’s an unjust system.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a typical day for Body started at the public defender’s office to receive a list of incarcerated individuals who could be eligible for services. Next, he spends most of the day inside the Cuyahoga County Jail interviewing clients and offering applicable assistance.
“I call it speed dating in a sense,” he said.
Bail disruptors are part of a program designed by The Bail Project to help get individuals who are incarcerated pretrial released from jails around the country.
Coming up on the finale of $50,000 to Freedom: Exploring Bail in West Virginia, reporter Patrick Orsago speaks with lawyers, bail disruptors and other policy experts from around the country to break down how other states have reformed the money bail system and how West Virginia’s bail reform efforts stack up.