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The Business of Bail Bonds: Two Agents in Ohio Doing it Right

Tuesday, November 8, 2011
ExpertBail John Handler
   Janet Adams, Business First

Ohio bail bond agents, and verified members of the ExpertBail Network, Jon Handler and John Fox, were recently interviewed by Business First. They discussed what it’s like to be in the bail profession, the frustrating stereotypes they face on a daily basis and some of the hurdles they encounter as a bail agent.

Bail bondsman Jon Handler smiled when asked about the two baseball bats propped in a chair at his German Village office.

Tools of the trade, perhaps?

“I stay away from that part of the business,” said the co-owner of SMD/HLS Bonding Co. “We have guys who handle ‘recovery.’ I run the business.”

Dressed in a suit and tie, Handler looks more like the criminal defense attorneys he schmoozes with at the Franklin County Courthouse than the thick-necked, knee-breaking bounty hunters in movies and television shows. The bats in his office, he said, are from a fantasy baseball camp he attended at Huntington Park and not for use on bail jumpers.

But the question raises the issue of the stereotypes about bail bondsmen that bug Handler and his business partner, John Fox. They’re especially irked by how their profession is portrayed in Dog the Bounty Hunter, a series on cable TV.

“We’re businessmen,” Handler said. “We don’t want to beat people up. I’m not Dog the Bounty Hunter.”

“This is a good, solid business,” Fox said. “We don’t like that it’s depicted so poorly because it’s not operated that way.”

Business for Generations
Handler, 33, and Fox, 35, learned that lesson while growing up in the bail bond business – each is a third-generation bail agent. They are taking those lessons and mixing in modern marketing to expand beyond their home turf in Columbus.

SMD/HLS opened an office in Delaware this year and hopes to add one in Chillicothe in early 2012. Handler sees potential for two or three more over the next five years in county seats around Central Ohio.

“There is so much business out there,” he said, “because there’s plenty of crime. I hate to say it, but it’s good for us.”

SMD/HLS’s roots reach to 1960, when Handler’s grandfather, Dave Handler, formed SMD Bail Bonds in Columbus with two other partners. Jon Handler’s father, Harvey, and Fox’s dad, Lowell, later joined the business. Their sons have been the owners since 2008.

Fox oversees operations, including 12 employees and the financial side of the company.

Handler spends his time signing clients, networking with defense lawyers and promoting a business that operates under four names – Handler Bail Bonds, Fox Bail Bonds, Sam English Bail Bonds and A-A Absolute Bail Bonds.

Get me to court on time
The business centers around posting bail for criminal defendants who don’t have the money. A bonding company is on the hook for the full amount if the defendant fails to show up for court.

For assuming that risk, bonding companies charge 10 percent on the bail amount. That means a bail agent receives a $1,000 fee for posting a $10,000 bond.

“The majority (of defendants) have a job and families,” Handler said, “but they don’t have the money to put up for bail. The service we provide is a necessity.”

But it’s also a business, so a defendant, family member or a friend needs to provide proof they can pay the entire bail amount if the defendant skips town.

“With the bigger bonds,” Handler said, “you try to get someone who owns a home. Then I can put a lien on it. Once I do that, they’re quick to give up that person.”

Bonding companies have insurance policies that pay them the bail amount if a defendant cannot be found after skipping court. But Handler said SMD/HLS has never filed a claim in its 50-plus years of doing business, choosing to eat any bail forfeitures to keep its premiums down.

That provides a big incentive to make sure defendants make it to court. SMD/HLS has an employee dedicated to tracking those court dates – the company typically has thousands of clients out on bond and adds 10 to 20 a day.

SMD/HLS also has two bounty hunters – “fugitive recovery agents” as Handler calls them – to track down those who jump bail and try to disappear. About 80 percent of the “skips” are usually found at home, Handler said, with many of them having slept in or forgotten their court dates. But others are full-fledged fugitives who may be armed.

“That’s when we get the authorities involved,” he said, noting SMD/HLS has never had a bail agent shot, although a few have been hurt in altercations.

“We’re not brute-type people,” Handler said. “We’re in business to get people out of jail and make sure they get back to court.”

Original Article: Bail bondsmen get out of town to find expansion opportunities
By Jeff Bell, Staff reporter - Business First