Bounty Hunters at the Gates: Wisconsin’s Flirtation with the Bail Bonds System

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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Surely you’ve noticed when flipping through TV channels the reality show Dog the Bounty Hunter on A&E. The show centers upon Duane “Dog” Chapman—a bearded, tattooed, and bemulleted bounty hunter—as he and his family of fellow bail enforcement agents apprehend fugitives in sunny Hawaii. Chapman has gotten a fair amount of publicity outside of his show, including a Paula Deen-esque racial slur controversy (unlike Deen, he had no merchandising empire to lose) that resulted in the temporary cancellation of his show, and for being arrested and briefly imprisoned in Mexico for illegally capturing celebrity fugitive Andrew Luster.

Like most reality shows, Dog the Bounty Hunter follows a set format. It begins with a briefing, where we are introduced to the fugitive’s criminal history. Next comes an investigation, which generally involves phone calls and visits to former neighbors and family members. Each episode’s climax is generally the discovery and capture of the bail jumper. The show then shifts from action to tear-jerking drama, with Dog and family providing homespun advice to the re-apprehended fugitive about taking responsibility for life, finding a job, and quitting drugs. “Smoke brah?” counselor-mode Dog asks, slipping a cigarette into the handcuffed man’s mouth and lighting it for him. Typically, the fugitive’s family is present to provide tearful commentary on exactly where things went wrong. Dog the Bounty Hunter is sleazy, shamelessly tacky, and unquestionably entertaining.

Fast forward to Wisconsin, the summer of 2013. One controversial proposal in the state’s biannual budget debate is whether Wisconsin should join a majority of other states in allowing bail bond companies to post bail for accused criminals in exchange for a percentage of the bond paid as a fee. If the accused fails to appear, the bail bonds company is potentially on the hook to the court for the entire amount of the bail—which is why bounty hunters aggressively attempt the recapture of absconded defendants. Wisconsin’s current system cuts out this middle man. In order to obtain release from jail, accused criminals must either post a signature bond with no money required, or a cash bond set at a certain amount directly to the court. Proponents of the bail bond system contend that having a bounty hunter ready to track down absconded fugitives tends to encourage attendance at court and compliance with the terms of bond, because law enforcement agencies typically don’t have the resources to chase down bail jumpers except for those accused of the most serious crimes.

In the end, Governor Scott Walker vetoed the budgetary provision that would have re-established the bail bonds system in a five county trial program, despite general support in the state legislature and lobbying from the bail bonds industry. Common criticisms from law enforcement, the defense bar, the judiciary, and district attorneys were that the system was unnecessary, would tie up money that would otherwise be used to pay restitution, and would simply result in judges setting a higher bond to begin with, meaning that defendants would pay the same amount to get out of jail anyway.

Ten thousand years from now, archaeologists might find a DVD of Dog the Bounty Hunter, doubtless assume it was a documentary of some sort, and they will have a small window into what life was really like in the lawless wasteland of the 21st century. However, thanks to the unusually harmonious voice of the Wisconsin criminal justice community on this issue, the possibility of a Wisconsin based Dog the Bounty Hunter spinoff has been eliminated for the immediate future–not that I wouldn’t have watched it.

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