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State's proposed bail reform could get more out of jails
Criminal justice stakeholders weigh in on bill's potential effect
Hall county jail
The Hall County Jail

At the bottom of Barber Road sits the Hall County Jail, a 1,026-bed facility that has teetered near full capacity in the past year.

Toward the top of the road are the bail bondsman agencies tasked with making sure people released return to court to face their charges.

Senate Bill 407 would work to give clearer discretion to the judiciary and law enforcement regarding bail and arrests, respectively, which may affect the bond industry.

“I can live with the bill in its current form. I know that it will probably hurt my business some. However, to (what) extent, I won’t know until the final bill comes out and is signed,” said Ginger Folger of US Bonds in Gainesville, who is also a director at large for the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen.

The bill introduced Feb. 8 is the final piece of Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform plan.

One section of the bill asks the Judicial Council of Georgia to create a misdemeanor citation form. The form gives the accused person information on their charges, as well as when and where to appear for court.

“To minimize the need for bail, more charges could be handled through citations instead of arrests,” according to the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform.

Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said he is in favor of using more citations, particularly with nonviolent misdemeanor crimes that may involve an offender younger than 21.

The bill would enable the department’s officers to “spend more time focused on major criminal offenders and less procedural time with non-violent misdemeanor offenders,” the sheriff said.

“Bottom line, this will mean more officers out patrolling the streets,” Couch said.

When the Hall County Jail population swelled in recent months to near capacity during a staffing shortage, law enforcement and court officials looked at ways to reduce the strain on jail officers. The sheriff’s office is still looking to hire more officers.

Couch and judicial officials identified inmates in December eligible for boarding out in nearby jails as well as others available for pretrial supervision and house arrest.

In the proposal, the judge would consider the accused person’s financial resources and assets, income, financial obligations of the accused and dependents, the purpose of bail and “any other factor the court deems appropriate” when setting bail.

Couch said the bill would reduce “the instances of jail serving as a de facto debtors’ prison by allowing officials to take all of an offender’s circumstances into consideration.”

More “own recognizance” bonds, meaning no payment, as well as fewer arrests would potentially affect Folger’s and others’ business, though the bill still has a ways to go in the legislature.

If a person uses a bondsman for a $500 bond, they will pay a fee up to 15 percent, or $75. The bondsman guarantees the full bond amount to the court system, meaning the agency has to keep track of the person.

“They have to check in here every week, depending on the nature of the crime and the amount of the bond. We keep up with their court dates, so we make sure that they show up in court. And if they don’t show up in court, we have to find them,” Folger said.

A July 2016 paper published in the American Economic Review called “The Effects of Pre-Trial Detention on Conviction, Future Crime and Employment” looked at 420,000 criminal cases between Philadelphia County and Miami-Dade County. Detained defendants pleaded guilty at a rate of 43 percent compared to 20.8 percent by those released before their trial.

The study also found detained defendants were 15 percent more likely to be incarcerated compared to those released, and they had prison sentences 264.6 days longer on average.

Assistant Hall County public defender Matt Leipold said the bail issue usually divides the population into two groups: those denied bond by a judge as a flight risk or danger to the community and those who cannot afford the bond amount set by the judge.

“Many of those people are languishing in jail for weeks and sometimes months, only because they cannot afford to post the bond,” he said.

Someone able to get out on bond has the ability to work, potentially enter a drug treatment program or take other steps to “mitigate the effect of their crime if they end up being convicted,” Leipold said.

Prosecutors are more likely to agree to probation or work release for someone who demonstrates good habits on the outside, the public defender said.

“Somebody who sits in jail is unable to help themselves anymore at that point. There’s nothing they can do to better their position. I think that the governor’s concern is that it’s not fair for that discrepancy to exist based on someone’s access to money,” Leipold said.

From his experience, Leipold said pretrial detention puts immense pressure on the client to cave in and take the deal on the table, and people usually tend to show up without being forced.

“The idea of bond in the first place was that you want to make sure people show up, and it made more sense probably going back to our legal tradition ... to England and before America was colonized,” he said. “There were no cars, no cellphones, no internet. In the old days, you needed a private bondsman to make sure the person showed up to court.”

The council said in a report released earlier this month that its focus on bail was spurred by a lawsuit filed against the city of Calhoun. A 54-year-old man filed a class-action suit after he was charged with pedestrian under the influence in Sept. 3, 2015, and held on a $160 bond, according to court documents

The man and his family were unable to pay, leading to a six-day jail stay, the council said.

There is a preliminary injunction in place for Calhoun, meaning all detained individuals are released on a recognizance bond requiring no payment.

In the 15-month period before the injunction, the Calhoun Municipal Court had 5,374 cases and had 34 bench warrants issued for people who did not show up for court.

After the injunction until May 2017, there were 5,559 cases with 85 bench warrants.

Without the bonds and the bondsmen, Folger said she believes the bench warrants could increase, which would create more work for that sector of law enforcement.

“I think that pretrial services has its place, and we have a very effective pretrial services department here, and they do a good job in their limited role,” Folger said. “But I think that any pretrial service has limitations. They are not incentivized in the same way I am. This is my money on the line.”

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