by John Styf
A suitcase of marijuana, drunk driving, car burglary, a high-speed chase, murder and prostitution were some of the issues discussed during more than nine hours of testimony this week in front of Tennessee’s Joint Senate Judiciary and House Criminal Justice Committee to Study Bail Reform.
Much of the early testimony centered on data and costs regarding how those accused of misdemeanors and felonies are handled in the pretrial process.
Second-day of testimony, as bail bondsmen appeared before the committee, focused on the public safety costs of increasing pretrial misdemeanor releases, including using statistical matrixes to determine whether a defendant should be released on a signature or cash bond.
Nashville bail bondsman Mario Hambrick detailed what he has seen in recent years, telling stories of how defendants are arrested, brought to the station and almost immediately released regardless of mitigating factors.
“You guys are the elected officials and we appreciated you,” Hambrick said. “But we must, you guys must, stand up and put a stop to this.”
Hambrick detailed a man from Washington, D.C., flying into Nashville with a suitcase of marijuana to pay fees because he was on probation and then getting a pretrial release and leaving the state. During the Music City Grand Prix weekend, Hambrick said a man from Hawaii was arrested for driving under the influence and released quickly.
Hambrick also spoke of a corner in Nashville where prostitution openly occurs and the police don’t attempt to stop it.
Hambrick said men get off the train, break into around 20 cars and “every now and then” they get caught. The defendant then says he is homeless and is released and “he’s off to the next city on the train,” Hambrick said.
“Warrants are out of control,” Hambrick said. “You can call (police) for assistance in any county, and you will not get assistance because they do not care.”
Committee member and state Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, detailed a case where a defendant was released from Knox County on charges of promoting prostitution, according to the Johnson City Press, before allegedly driving to Sullivan County and shooting and killing a woman he previously dated before cutting off his ankle bracelet and fleeing to New Orleans, where he was arrested.
The man since was charged with first-degree murder, vandalism of a monitoring device and vandalism, and he was brought back to the state from New Orleans.
“To me, the talk about a matrix does not work,” Hulsey said, noting the man was released in Knox County based on a pretrial release matrix.
Nick DeBord, who formerly worked at the Knox County Sheriff’s Office but now is a private bail bondsman and vice president of the Tennessee Bail Agency, said very few Knox County officers are available to go out on warrants and find defendants. He said the warrant unit serves about one or two warrants per day while Knox County issues about 100 warrants daily and each officer has 1,000 warrants assigned to him or her.
“Prior to the pretrial release program, Knox County averaged 13,000 active criminal warrants on any given day,” DeBord said. “That number has grown significantly with pretrial release where essentially there is no incentive for the defendant to show up to court.”
Kansas state Rep. Stephen Owens, who owns a bail bonding company is Kansas, said a study by the University of Texas showed the average cost to the state each time a defendant failed to appear in court was $1,775.
“Rather than that cost being shifted to the community and the victims that have been perpetrated by the alleged charge,” Tennessee state Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, said. “ … We are going to shift that cost to the community if they don’t show up.”
Owens called many bail reform and pretrial release programs an “end around to defunding the police” and said a key component of a conservative approach to criminal justice reform was focusing on treatment for mental health and addiction.
“If we could get a grip on addiction and we could get a grip on mental health, nothing would be more effective as lowering the incarceration rates in our jail system,” Owens said.
Any effective system with private bail bond companies means more defendants show up for court and the public remains safer, Owens said, a concern raised by many of those who testified.
“Folks want to strengthen the bail system,” Jeff Clayton of the American Bail Coalition said. “In other words, they are concerned that too many violent repeat offenders are getting out, on bail, and not being detained pending trial … particularly gun offenses.”
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