Legislators put bail bond industry under the microscope

By: - September 15, 2021 5:01 am
(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

West Tennessee bail bond agent Shelly Alexander wept Tuesday as she told lawmakers how she once refused to bail her daughter out of jail for a meth arrest.

Alexander knew her daughter had a “habit” and would go right back to debilitating drugs if she bailed her out. In fact, she told other bail agents not to write bonds for her child.

Shelly Alexander (Photo: Professional Bail Agents of the United States)
Shelly Alexander (Photo: Professional Bail Agents of the United States)

Years later, Alexander’s 11-year-old grandson told her, “You saved my mama’s life.”

A representative of the Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Bond Agents, Alexander put a human face on the bail bond industry that grabbed the attention of lawmakers studying bail bond legislation.

Not only does she write bonds enabling people to get out of jail, Alexander is an addiction advocate who assesses her clients and tries to turn them in the right direction.

“We’re not just bondsmen, we’re neighbors, we’re your support system,” she said. “We’re the ones who run down people who run when officers don’t have the time.”  

Tennessee lawmakers put the bail bond industry on the defensive this week, forcing it to stand up against reform legislation that could license agents and change the way bonds are handled.

Testimony by Verna Wyatt, co-founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims, also resonated with legislators as she told them how her sister-in-law was kidnapped and raped by a person out on bail.

We're not just bondsmen, we're neighbors, we're your support system. We're the ones who run down people who run when officers don't have the time.

– Shelly Alexander, Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Bond Agents

“I’m terrified Tennessee will start no-bail, low-bail” programs, which are “terrorizing” cities such as Chicago and New York. “We need plain, simple justice,” she said. 

Legislators and those testifying agreed that there are some “bad actors” in the bail bond industry, possibly 5%. But they also acknowledged without bail bond agents, the criminal justice system would struggle more than it already does.

The House Criminal Justice/Senate Judiciary Joint Committee to Study Bail Reform dove into the complex subject based on two bills sponsored by Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, and Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, Senate Bills 804 and 805. 

“It’s not my intent to abolish the bail bond industry. I think it serves a vital role in our justice system,” Haile said Monday. But he argued it needs better accountability and education and more professionalism.

He noted people shouldn’t be penalized because they’re poor. At the same time, though, he said discounting bonds and letting people out of jail after three DUIs needs to end.

It's not my intent to abolish the bail bond industry. I think it serves a vital role in our justice system.

– Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin

The legislation could spur changes in the industry, potentially requiring agents to be licensed by the state and enabling clerks to collect bail of $7,500 or less directly from defendants instead of bringing bail bond agents into the equation. In addition, it could set guidelines for defendants charged with low-level offenses to be released on their own recognizance or with some conditions rather than being bonded out.

But after eight hours of hearings, it appears current laws are likely to see only a tweak with the bail bond industry proposing ideas likely to be handed to Haile and Curcio for consideration in the 2022 legislative session.

“I think we tighten some things, hone some things out of this,” Curcio said afterward.

Educating judges and magistrates about pretrial release, conditions and setting bond could be the most important idea to come out of the hearings, he said. 

Curcio also said legislation is likely to set standards for bail bond agents to make sure “criminals aren’t monitoring criminals.” Lawmakers heard discussion about one case in which bail bondsman would write a man’s bond only if the defendant’s girlfriend agreed to have sex in exchange.

Talk also focused on situations in which bond agents are taking a series of payments from defendants and gaining access to credit cards, instead of using a one-time cash payment to make their bail.

Bonding companies could be required to use TBI background checks and take fingerprints before hiring bonding agents to ensure they’re not criminals.

In addition, lawmakers heard from vendors of monitoring devices to find out the latest tools on the market for keeping track of defendants to make sure they show up at court on time and don’t flee the region.

The hearings pitted legislators of the same party and similar political views against each other. For instance, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat who contends too often “you get the justice you can afford rather than the justice you deserve,” took a different view than Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Nashville Democrat who owns a bail bonding company and believes bonding agents play an integral role in the criminal justice system.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Vincent Dixie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, owns Bail U Out Bonding. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In more than eight hours of hearings, legislators took testimony from groups who believe the bail bonding industry should be brought under control and those who said the criminal justice system couldn’t live without it.

Much of the discussion also showed jails are filled with drug and alcohol addicts who are likely to commit offenses again because of their addictions.

Problems are exacerbated, as well, by the state’s geography, with General Sessions judges in rural areas holding court only a few times each month, while judges in urban counties have dockets several times a week. Some highly-populated counties hold jail hearings more than once a week to expedite pretrial decisions.

Even Davidson County General Sessions Judge Lynda Jones, who testified in favor of the legislation, struck a bit of balance in the debate, saying defendants’ constitutional rights must be weighed against public safety.

“Good laws are in place,” Jones said. “Instead of talking about reform, a better word is refine. We want to refine the laws we have.” That means making sure judges and county court clerks apply laws equally, she said.

Judges, who are supposed to have the final say over bond amounts, already use a number of factors to determine whether a person should be released on bail and the amount to ensure they show up at court hearings until their case concludes. Those include employment, length of time in a community, family ties and relationships, mental condition and criminal records. The nature of the offense also plays a role in the decision.

In Tennessee, defendants can be released before trial on any charge except a capital offense.

Setting monetary bail is a “final resort,” Jones said, noting, “Liberty has got to be tantamount.” In other words, bail can’t be set so high that people who could be released are trapped in jail before their guilt or innocence is decided.

Jones argued that payment plans are a “bad idea” because they hold the potential for abuse, enabling bonding agents to set up a plan that traps defendants. 

Bail bond agents typically collect up to 10% of a bond, but they can take lower amounts, according to testimony. At least one person testifying said defendants are selling stolen items just to raise the money to pay bail agents.

Amid complaints about “bad actors” who use unscrupulous practices, Dixie defended the industry on the whole, noting most agents use weekly check-ins to make sure their clients show up for court hearings.

“The bail bonding company has a vested interest in getting that client there,” Rep. Dixie said. 

If defendants skip town, agents are responsible for tracking them down and bringing them to justice. Otherwise, they’ll have to pay the full bond amount.

Jenna Bottler, with Justice Action Network, told lawmakers public safety “has to be the crux of the conversation.”

Yet she also showed a correlation between lengthy pretrial detention and recidivism. Defendants who stay in jail for 31 days have a 74% chance of committing another crime, compared to those who spend only two to three days in jail before trial who have a 39% chance of offending again.

Bottler agreed with Dixie that algorithms used to determine bail amounts can be “inherently biased” but said they could be used in a “broader context.” Dixie pointed out those types of formulas ask questions about people’s address and their parents’ background, which could be used against them to set a higher bail.

Bail bonding is a complex issue, which some say adds punishment to those who can’t afford to pay bail, and others, including Jenna Bottler with Justice Action Network, said there’s a correlation between length of time spent in jail and recidivism.

Vera Institute for Justice contends the state’s money bail system needs reform. The organization, represented by Jasmine Heiss at the hearing, says state law passed in 1978 is supposed to affirm the “presumption of non-monetary release.”

“However, in Tennessee and across the country, money bail has increasingly become a default – and when bond amounts are set at amounts that are too high for poor defendants to pay, it undermines the Tennessee Constitution and the presumption of innocence,” she said in a statement.

Heiss said limiting the role of money “as a determinant of release” should be one of the main parts of pretrial reform. Short of eliminating money bonds for some low-level charges, though, the Legislature should strengthen existing law to allow people to be released, determine whether they can afford to pay bail and expedite bail hearings.

In addition, the group contends money bonds should be used only for cases in which “serious community safety” is in question.

Ultimately, legislators on the committee seemed more inclined to keep dangerous criminals in jail instead of letting them out until their court dates.

Jeffrey Clayton of the American Bail Coalition told legislators Tuesday risk assessment tools are “going by the wayside.” He encouraged Tennessee to adopt a two-day maximum for pretrial hearings, which Florida uses, to determine whether a defendant should be released on his own recognizance or bail.

“The swiftness of the punishment is the most effective tool we have,” he said.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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