SANTA ANA, Calif. - Bail bond agents are increasingly helping cash-strapped defendants get out of jail with ultra-cheap financing deals, a practice that worries law enforcement officials and insurers, and could endanger public safety.

To bolster their businesses during the recession, a growing number of bondsmen nationwide are requiring upfront payments that are only a fraction of the customary 10 percent premium amount - sometimes with no collateral. In exchange, the accused agree to make up the difference on credit cards or monthly installment plans.

While such financing is legal in all but a handful of states, law enforcement officials and politicians fear that it undermines defendants' incentive to show up to face charges. Insurance companies that back the bonds are also concerned about the potential for escalating bail-forfeiture rates, which are currently estimated at less than 5 percent.

"When you have a bail bond that's half a million dollars and you can get out with 1 percent down, that's pretty scary," said Bill Lee, a San Bernardino County deputy district attorney who prosecutes bail bond cases.

Based on publicly available documents, it is nearly impossible to determine whether the recent rise in bail-on-credit is causing an increase in bail jumping, experts say. That is partly because courts use widely varying ways to record defaults, and even then the data is delayed by the fact that bounty hunters in many states have months to catch absconders before a default is recorded.

In California, for example, they have up to a year to catch bail jumpers, while in states such as North Carolina, Maryland and Connecticut, it's up to six months. Moreover, any payment deals struck between defendants and bail bondsmen are protected by privacy laws.

"We don't know how many bonds are being forfeited," said Timothy Murray, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Pretrial Justice Institute, which has tried unsuccessfully to track the issue.

The financing of bail bonds first popped up a few years ago, but bond agents say the tight economy has made the tactic so commonplace that it now makes up as much as half the bonds they write.

It is particularly pronounced in California, where bail amounts are the highest in the nation and the housing crisis has made it difficult for people to use their homes as collateral. Regulation is also more lax in California than other states, a few of which ban bail-on-credit or ban commercial bonding entirely.

Agent Jose Marquez, of Signature Bail Bonds in Santa Ana, said that he's turned down some bizarre deals of late: one man offered his beloved 15-year-old pooch as collateral. Marquez is financing twice as many bonds on credit than a year ago - and he feels pressure to cut deals to stay afloat.

"Before, it was only a fraction of them that wanted credit, but now it's the first thing they ask for," Marquez said. *