Judges seeking suggestions for tighter bail bond regulations

Judges seeking suggestions for tighter bail bond regulations

July 4th, 2012 by Beth Burger in News

Judges Don Poole, Barry Steelman and Rebecca Stern, from left, talk as they share the bench in Judge Steelman's courtroom Tuesday during a hearing about bonding companies.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

After nearly six hours of court hearings on Tuesday, Hamilton County Criminal Court judges said tighter regulations are needed to cut down on the number of disputes among the 25 bail bonding companies in the area.

"I think the procedures are the problems," said Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern as the hearings wrapped up.

Stern and the other two Criminal Court judges, Barry Steelman and Don Poole, attended Tuesday's hearing. The judges, who regulate the local bonding companies, said they are open to suggestions in the next month about any needed changes.

But an immediate change will take place starting at the Hamilton County Jail, which now will have inmates designate a bonding company on their release paperwork.

Several complaints heard in court Tuesday were over bonding companies vying for the same inmate. An inmate's family would secure one company and the inmate, tired of waiting, selects another after watching other inmates get out.

"The problem is they want out. They don't care who shows up. That's what is creating the problems," said Sheriff Jim Hammond, who attended the hearings.

On average, it takes an hour to 90 minutes for someone to be bonded out of the jail, Hammond said, but if the facility is busy, it sometimes takes three hours.

Although the percentage can vary, bonding companies historically put up 10 percent of the bail amount, which is set by a magistrate.

Under the new system, once inmates designate the bond company, if a different company shows up, the inmate won't be released to the new company, Hammond said.

The jail recently stopped allowing bondsmen to file paperwork before an inmate is even booked into the jail. In some cases, bondsmen were dropping off paperwork and calling every 20 minutes to check if an inmate had been booked so they could bail him or her out and get the bond money, Hammond said.

"It's an extremely competitive business," he said.

Hammond said the sheriff's office website will be updated to include information on inmates' booking status, which is valuable to bondsmen.

Some of the complaints heard Tuesday asserted that jail staff allow bail bondsmen to come into restricted areas inside the jail to meet inmates and that jail staff and court employees routinely leak information to give certain bonding companies an advantage in landing inmates.

While the sheriff routinely reviews such allegations, Tuesday's testimony could be used if an investigation is launched. As of Tuesday afternoon, no investigation had been initiated, but judges said the court proceedings and complaints would be reviewed.

Several bonding companies hired legal counsel for the hearing.

Attorney Bill Speek represented Key Bonding Co., which was accused of allowing its bondsmen to bond out inmates without any payment changing hands in hopes of getting reimbursed when the inmate gets out of jail. In those cases, family members already had signed contracts and paid other companies.

"I think the end result is tighter regulations. I think it was inevitable. I think it's going to be more close scrutiny and more oversight," Speek said.

John Horton, 21, told the court that, when he was in custody at the jail, he watched a jailer take a bondsman with Key Bonding Co. into the cell area -- a restricted area where bondsmen are not allowed -- to post his friend's bond.

"We saw someone walking through with an officer," he said.

His bond was posted a few hours later by a different bond company.

Yolanda Mitchell, who served as a magistrate from November 2007 to 2011 and is now running for a General Sessions Court judge seat, answered questions about inappropriate communication with Carlos Jones, owner of Carlos Bonding Co.

She denied disclosing information to bonding companies while working as a magistrate, saying she instructed inmates to look at a list and told them, "You pick whichever one looks good to you."