Dallas County

The Incredible Shrinking Bond Forfeitures: At This Rate, County Will Owe Bondsmen Money

On Sunday the daily reported that Dallas County had some $35 million in outstanding bond forfeitures. Oh, but wait: Yesterday Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins shot back, calling the number a "gross misinterpretation of the true nature and totality of the bail bond forfeiture challenge facing Dallas County." The "legally collectible" amount was but a fraction of what was reported over the weekend -- more like a cool $6 mil, if that, Jenkins said.

Whip out your calculators, Friends of Unfair Park, and prepare for some long division, because the actual number that is realistically, practically and -- oh, yeah -- legally available is less than $500,000, according to an estimate from the county Auditor's Office. Yes, we know.

The $35 million represents all bond forfeitures dating back to 1959, Jenkins told the assembled media at a presser in the Dallas County Administration Building this morning. (Commissioner Mike Cantrell, who was scheduled to attend, was apparently in a civil service hearing, so he couldn't make it.)

For now, we'll resist the temptation to wonk out (though there are spreadsheets after the jump) and instead say that it's a case of old-school accounting, antiquated IT and one hand -- the criminal court judges, the county clerk's office, the county commissioners and auditors -- having no clue what the other hand is doing.

Now, after decades of this, the county can't collect on a bunch of old bad debt. So Unfair Park asked Jenkins about the distinction between the "legally collectible" forfeitures and the money the county has to kiss goodbye.

According to Jenkins, if the forfeiture has been outstanding for more than 10 years and no lien or writ of execution has been filed, the money's gone. If some smokehound got a personal recognizance bond and didn't show, good luck collecting anyway. If a guy ends up in prison, stamping license plates won't do much to settle up that debt with the county. These are the forfeitures little can be done about. How much of the pie they comprise is another question entirely.

But, Unfair Park inquired, is it possible that, seeing how nobody knows what everyone else is doing, that some bonds got paid, but notations weren't made in the right place?

"That is true," Jenkins replied. "We've found that already in some cases. Of that $35 million, that again just represents every figure on the computer since 1959, we found some situations where, because our computers are not communicating with one another, it shows paid on one and not on the other. So, does that make it as clear as mud?"

Yes, Your Honor, it does.

So what's to be done?

Jenkins: Yadda, yadda, my predecessor let things go to shit. Meanwhile, the county plans on hiring law firms that work on a contingency basis and specialize in collections. And a task force composed of all the previously uncommunicative arms of county government will now create some protocols. Jenkins said he's headed to Portland, Oregon, shortly, hoping someone can set the county up on the Cloud -- maybe Google? -- so they can link up digitally.

He also plans to shop around for some new software, though he noted it may be easier said than done -- like maybe nearly 3 years down the road. Why so long, Unfair Park asked?

"Problem is, whether you sell radios or dresses, the software you need is pretty uniform," Jenkins began. "But in government, the way we handle bond forfeitures is different than the way Oklahoma or Missouri handle that. So there's a very small group of people out there who want to buy your software, so software companies are not itching to build something for us."

It may also take a little longer, he said, because he's communicating with some of the surrounding counties. Eventually, the county would like to sell the software to some of the 'burbs. So, we guess that's one way to bridge the gap between a half mil and 35 mil.Bond Forfeitures Cnty CtsBond Forfeitures District Ct

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Brantley Hargrove