Consider them as composing the wild frontier of the Shelby County criminal justice system.
"Most people's first impression when they get arrested is I want to get out of jail," said Gerald Skahan, Memphis defense attorney. "The quickest way is to pay your money to the bonding company to get out."
Bail bond companies in Memphis have loosely operated for decades in a competitive atmosphere complete with back-biting, shadowy ownership and "wink and nod" relationships with court employees and attorneys. But, their existence has become more of a necessary evil in the wake of the sky-rocketing costs of bailing out of jail, standards recommended by prosecutors and often endorsed by criminal court judges now bent on sending "get tough on crime" messages for public consumption.
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"I've been practicing right at 36 years now," said Leslie Ballin, defense attorney. "The last few years bonds have increased 10 times. First offenders on felonies and you're getting $50,000 bonds. It's crazy."
"Many of the people that are arrested in Memphis are indigent," added Arthur Horne III, defense attorney. "They don't have money and so what happens is they sit in jail until they get a public defender or a lawyer appointed to them on cases that could have probably made the bond if it was a reasonable one. You want to send a message that we're getting tough on crime so you get higher bonds. You don't settle as many cases. But, then you have a backlog of people who are sitting in jail."
A situation which could be compounded beginning this year as the criminal and general sessions courts in Shelby County next week consider tightening the rules of practice and procedure for local bail bond companies, similar to what's already on the books in Nashville.
"It's going to have quite a few changes and they're going to be really far-reaching for both the bail bond companies and defendants," said Michael Gatlin, defense attorney.
FOX13 News has obtained a copy of the 10 pages of rule changes which could be adopted and applied to bond companies. For this report, Gatlin, a former bail bondsman, explained three of the major reforms that could effect the industry and future defendants the most.
"Currently Nashville has a rule, any bond $75,000 or larger you have to have a 'source hearing,'" he said. "It says that a general sessions judge, circuit judge - in this case a criminal court judge - would have to determine the source of the funds used to make the bond and would have to approve it."
There is recent history which would justify the change. In 2011, 10 judges signed a decree to close the Nationwide Bail Bonding company. The judges accused the company of misleading the courts for more than a decade about their financial operations. Owner Geraldine Galloway, who was convicted of money laundering in 2005, had bought a pick-up truck using drug money that was linked to now convicted Memphis drug kingpin Craig Petties.
"They're also looking at all bonds $25,000 or larger would have to be paid in full," Gatlin said. "No more credit bonds on those. You can't pay a couple thousand dollars down and then you make payments on the bonds from time to time as the current system is now.
"The clerk's office is going to stop sending letters to the defendants advising them of their court dates if they're out on bond through a bonding company," Gatlin added. "Only if they're out on or out on a cash bond, will they get a letter from the court, saying, 'Hey, your court date is such and such, division so and so.' Otherwise bonding companies are going to be responsible for notifying the defendants of their court times."
Besides procedural changes, suspensions and disciplinary actions can be invoked by the court against bail bonding companies if they fail to submit drug screens of the owners and all bonding agents. If they're caught paying fees or making promises of value to any clerk, jailer, police officer or attorney. A complete financial history and must be submitted for review and the district attorney and the Shelby County Sheriff's Department will conduct criminal history checks on owners and agents.
Bail bond owners FOX13 News spoke with didn't want to comment on any of changes until they are confirmed by the 10 criminal court judges.
"Bonds are just to insure that somebody's going to come back to court, ensure the safety of the community," Ballin said.
As if they haven't already, Shelby County bail bond companies will now be engaged even more in the high cost of doing business in the Shelby County justice system.
WHBQ-TV | Fox 13
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