CONCORD — Declaring the system is failing, a legislative committee will recommend court judges be required to help ensure bail commissioners get a $40 fee from defendants unless the arrested are truly indigent.
The House-Senate committee heard from bail commissioners across the state who said many are leaving the field thanks to a bail reform law that allows any defendant to claim without offering proof they are poor and avoid paying the fee.
Trixie Lefebvre, a bail commissioner for 10 years in the Derry Circuit Court and Rockingham County Superior Court, last spring urged her senator, Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, to create this study committee.
“Since June I have received payment from one of 11 defendants,” Lefebvre testified to the committee.
Carson said these bail commissioners often come out in the middle of the night to help some criminally dangerous defendants get bail.
“One way or another, the bail commissioner needs to get paid. I think that is one thing this committee has already decided,” Carson said.
“That is the way it should be. People don’t work for free.”
Carson said she envisions a “two-prong system,” one a simple for one for those who have the $40 and pay the bail commissioner on the spot and a second one for those who don’t pay.
Under Carson’s model, those who don’t pay would have to sign a form claiming they are poor.
This statement would be attached to their arrest file and the judge could assess and determine if the claim is valid, Carson said.
“With that voucher, the bail commissioners are going to get paid anyway. It will be up to the court to collect it. We have to figure out the moving parts for how to get that done,” Carson said.
She agreed with court administrators the mandate the court give the fee money to the bail commissioners up front and go after defendants to collect it may have to wait until July 1, 2021, when the next two-year state budget cycle begins.
Putting court administrators back in charge of helping commissioners get paid will help, Carson said.
“The system in place is broken. The job is not easy to perform. Bail commissioners are part of the judicial system but are not employed as such,” Carson said.
State Rep. Peter Schmidt, D-Dover, agreed and said he would sign onto a 2020 bill Carson will submit next week along with committee members and Reps. David Meuse, D-Portsmouth and Joe Alexander, R-Goffstown.
“The design was flawed from the very beginning,” Schmidt said. “An individual can claim they have no money and walk way without paying the bail commissioner’s fee.”
Carson’s bill will also require bail commissioners get a court-created ID card, will beef up annual education and training programs and create a pilot in which bail commissioners could do their business with the police and courts electronically to avoid long driving time and expense to always have to be there in person.
Court administrators appoint bail commissioners who first must get licensed as a justice of the peace from the governor and Executive Council.
The bail commissioner application includes a State Police criminal records check and the court administrator must assess the need in that area before adding more commissioners.
The study committee rejected the suggestion to make bail commissioners court employees.
Manchester Police Lt. Timothy Patterson advised Carson on Thursday how to craft the language to get fee relief for the bail commissioners.
“I think it is a good idea. We agree the bail commissioners definitely need to get paid,” said Patterson, one of the Manchester police prosecutors who handle lower-court arraignments. “Nobody works for free and I am surprised this has gone on this long without some resolution being generated.”
Judy Cook, a bail commissioner in the Milford Circuit Court, said since-retired Judge Martha Crocker designed a model to help make sure Cook and others got paid, but superior court judges have provided no such help.
The paperwork that goes to the local Milford court carries a red sticker if the commissioner hasn’t gotten their money, Cook said.
“This is when, if they are indigent, they will tell the judge,” Cook said.
She agreed the lack of payment certainty causes many bail commissioners to quit or not answer their phones.
Two years ago there were nine bail commissioners in the Milford area; now there are three, Cook said.
“If you are not paid for your time, I can see where people don’t really want to do the job,” she said.
Bail reform has also reduced the number of bail bondsmen that work in the state, the committee was told.
Julie Carkhuff of 2nd Chance Bail Bonds in Londonderry recently testified the number of companies actively in the state has gone from four to one.
“In August 2018 I wrote 175 bonds; that number in August this year was down to only 16,” Carkhuff said
Bail Commissioner Lefebvre, who got this study rolling, is happy with its work product.
“I’m really pleased. We’ve already seen in the system that the word has gone out from judges who recognize this is a real problem,” Lefebvre said. “This bill is going to do some good.”