The Hall County Jail is a gleaming new facility with plenty of seating for visitors, sturdy locked doors and shiny razor wire all around.
But if you've been picked up for shoplifting, stealing a car or otherwise breaking the law, cresting the hill on Barber Street that leads to the jail can be the start of a long night of paperwork, fingerprints, questioning and no sleep.
Which is why people who have been charged with a misdemeanor have the option to make a phone call, reaching out to the one person who can help them spend what's left of the night back in their bed at home.
No, not their mama. It's the bail bondsman.
Ann Farmer is familiar with these types of calls. She owns Easy Out Bonding, one of six bonding agents that serve Hall County, and is used to hearing her cell phone ring at all hours of the night. On some weekends during the summer — when more tourists and transient people are about — it's not uncommon for her and her office manager and fellow bondsman, Ella Reece, to spend more time in the office than at home.
But get one thing straight about bail bond agents before conjuring the image of televisions's Dog the Bounty Hunter, a reality TV character who chases down criminals with his flowing blonde hair and black SUV. Writing bonds to release people from jail isn't about breaking down doors and high-speed chases.
That's for the bail bond recovery agent — and more on that in a minute.
Farmer's had her share of interesting characters come through her office up the street from the jail, but a lot of the job involves keeping records, court dates and other assorted paperwork straight for each of the thousands of people who hire her to bail them out of jail.
"Not everyone in jail is a bad person. Sometimes bad things happen," she said. "We earn our money at the time we sign the bond. We're impartial ... I'm like, ‘I'm not the judge and jury.'"
Basics of bond writing
Bail is money or property forfeited to the court if someone who is accused of a crime fails to appear for trial. If the person who is arrested doesn't have the cash to post the bail, a friend or relative may make the deposit with the court, or the accused may pay a bail bondsman a percentage of the amount. The bondsman then guarantees the court that it will receive the full amount if that person doesn't appear in court.
Col. Jeff Strickland of the Hall County Sheriff's Office said all misdemeanor charges, and a few felonies, are assigned a specific bond amount. So depending on the charge, the bond has already been set when someone is arrested and brought to the jail.
"So, we book the person into the jail and they have telephone access in the jail. And all the pre-approved bonding companies in Hall County, their numbers are listed in alphabetical order in front of the phone," he said. "Then it's up to the person arrested to contact the bonding company to work out the deal to get them released."
Farmer said she's often gotten calls from people who then ask her to conference call a relative, too. And the call from the jail is usually collect.
The bonding agent then starts to collect information from the caller and explains their fee — usually between 10 and 15 percent, depending on the amount of the bond.
"They will gather all the information required for us to want to get that person out of jail," said Scott Echols, co-owner of ASAP Bonding. "It's almost like going to a bank to get out a loan; we have requirements that they have to meet for us before we will want to write the bond."
Those requirements include how long the accused has had a job or how long they have lived in Georgia.
If that person doesn't show up for their court date, Strickland said a bench warrant is issued, and it's up to the bonding company to apprehend them.
"They can turn them in to the jail and go off their bond, but it's up to them to find them," he said. "Otherwise, after a set period of time, (the bonding agent) will have to pay that."
Which is where the recovery agent comes in.
Farmer works with a man named J.Y. He's not particularly burly like TV's Dog, but he has a degree in criminal justice from North Georgia College & State University and keeps up with self-defense classes and his state-required training.
It's not about having street smarts to hunt down accused criminals who have skipped on their court dates, he said. Rather, it's about just being smart.
For example, J.Y. once caught a man who was accused of being a "spitter," and he was HIV positive. J.Y. had to hog-tie the man in the back of his truck.
Most times, though, Farmer said J.Y. will show his nice side first. That happens a lot when methamphetamine addicts get booked in jail, he said, and they usually haven't eaten for a day or so before getting arrested.
"I feel bad for them ... usually you pick them up and they haven't had anything to eat," he said.
Farmer jokes with him about stopping to pick up a fast-food combo deal before bringing them to the office, but it's all part of the plan, J.Y. said.
"A wise old bail bondsman once told me, you can go from nice to mean," he said. "But you can never go from mean to nice."
In the six or so years J.Y. has worked with Farmer, their recovery rate has been about 100 percent. But there is one criminal who is a constant thorn in their sides.
"The first guy to get away, he was a drug trafficker up here," J.Y. said. He followed the guy to New Orleans, where he was living with his girlfriend and a large Doberman.
"We surrounded the house ... and while she was trying to get control of the dog, the guy took off out a second story window."
J.Y. ran after him for two miles, eventually losing him in Central Park East, one of the worst neighborhoods in New Orleans. So bad, in fact, that instead of patrolling the park with city police, it was watched over by military police.
"I got snatched out of the park by two MPs," he said, noting that he's chased the same drug dealer through New York, New Jersey, Florida and North Carolina.
"That one guy, he's a royal pain," Farmer said.
Just doing business
But you can't believe everything you see on TV, especially when it comes to knocking down doors looking for a potential criminal who's missed a court date.
"What you see on TV is misleading," J.Y. said. "We don't go up and storm your house."
In fact, this time of year it's pretty quiet, Farmer said. From March through September, with more visitors to Lake Lanier and the surrounding area, there are more opportunities for crime, she said. And therefore, more opportunities for bail bonds.
Strickland said from January through November of 2009 there were 12,348 people booked in the Hall County Jail.
She also said the economy has changed their business a bit in the way people are paying for their services — more people are paying with credit cards rather than cash. And although there has been an increase in thefts recently due to the economy, Farmer said the people they bail out of jail have a variety of charges.
She's also seen more immigration arrests come through.
Both Farmer and Echols said their bonding offices see repeat customers, too.
"But there's a lot of people who get into trouble for the first time and they don't know (the system)," Echols said. "We try to really go out of our way to help them out. Sometimes we're the only chance they have of getting out of jail.
"Even a small bond - a $2,000 bond - most people don't have $2,000 to post to get someone out of jail."
And in the process of following up on their customers and making sure they show up in court, the bail bondsman becomes a counselor, too.
Farmer's assistant, Reece, said she once got a phone call from a former customer who had gotten in a car accident. He wanted her to call 911 for him.
"He felt comfortable calling us, so I helped him," she said.
And it helps their customers when they make their court dates too, the bondsmen said. Otherwise, if they get pulled over a few years later and a bench warrant shows up on their record, they're back in jail.
And this time, they might not get bonded out.