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Statewide bail bondsmen rules needed, state auditor finds

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A legislative auditor called on lawmakers to consider pushing a state agency to regulate West Virginia bail bondsmen, who currently must abide by sometimes-nebulous bail bonding rules that are enforced differently from one county to the next.

Michael Castle, a researcher in the legislative auditor's office, told members of the Joint Committee on Government Organization Tuesday that the West Virginia Insurance Commission should have the authority over the state's commercial bail bonding industry, rather than individual county entities.

The auditor's office released a report that found that West Virginia is one of only six states in the nation in which the county government - usually circuit court judges - regulate bondsmen.

The report notes that 39 states have statutory language that establishes a regulatory agency to oversee bail bonding, mostly for licensing purposes. Twenty-five of those states gave that responsibility to their respective insurance commissioners.

"The disadvantages of light or inadequate regulations are a higher risk of corruption, and unscrupulous treatment by bail bond agents on those seeking bail," the report states.

But state Insurance Commissioner Michael D. Riley said in response to the report that his office is not prepared to bear the burden of regulating the industry.

Riley said that the insurance commission would have to create a separate division and spend too much money hiring staff and buying equipment to deal with the new responsibilities. His current staffers are not trained in criminal matters, he said.

Riley also pointed out that there are only a handful of bondsmen in the state and their annual licensing fees alone would not offset the cost of the new personnel and equipment needed to create the new regulatory branch of the insurance commission.

The legislative report notes Riley's objections, but apparently charges lawmakers with finding a solution.

"The [Legislature] will need to take this into consideration," the report states.

The report found that 20 of West Virginia's 55 counties have not established rules for commercial bail bondsmen, with only four counties requiring the bondsmen to periodically renew a license or membership that qualifies them to work in the court system.

Some counties, like Kanawha County, do not have any bail bondsmen.

Several years ago, the county circuit judges created regulations that essentially forced the existing bonding companies to pool their assets in a court-monitored business partnership and share the 6 percent bonding fees that they received from their criminally charged clients.

Bonding companies have been absent in the county for at least 15 years. "The requirement to participate in the partnership is likely discouraging commercial bail bondsmen from operating in Kanawha County," the report states.


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