Alabama’s bail bonds system is caught in the tensions between jail overcrowding, backed-up court dockets, violent criminals reoffending on bond and an individual’s constitutional rights and presumed innocence.
The most recent case of a violent suspect reoffending on bail came when 22-year-old Christin Edwards was allegedly behind the trigger of the Nov. 2 shooting at a Mobile bowling alley. She was free on bond as a murder suspect in a July 2019 killing of a 17-year-old. The bowling alley shooting resulted in four injuries.
Mobile District Attorney (DA) Ashley Rich believes one major component of the issue is how inexpensive it is for an individual to sign a contract with local bail bonds companies.
According to the DA’s office, Edwards was able to meet bond through the help of a bonding company after District Judge Spiro Cheriogotis removed a $10,000 upfront cash component despite prosecutors opposing the action. Edwards was held on a $180,000 bond for murder and firing into an occupied vehicle.
Rich said local bonds companies offer bail for just 5 percent of their total set bond amount, whereas bonds companies have traditionally charged 10 percent. In some cases, she said, local bonds companies are allowing people to enter payment plans to meet the financial requirements for bonds, which means even less out-of-pocket money is required.
“It’s a joke,” Rich said.
Rich said because of the low bar for bail, district attorneys across the state seek to add upfront cash components on top of bail bond amounts. But Rich said these cash components only work when they are upheld by the court.
Rich believes the first thing the state needs is for Aniah’s Law to be enacted if it is voted up in a statewide referendum next year.
The Alabama Legislature passed Aniah’s Law during this year’s regular spring session. The law will empower the state’s judges with the option to hold suspected violent offenders without bond. The law will be a constitutional amendment and will have to be enacted by a vote in the 2022 state elections. The law is named for 19-year-old Aniah Blanchard, who was abducted in October 2019 from an Auburn gas station and killed. Her alleged killer, Ibraheem Yazeed, was free on a $295,000 bond for attempted murder in connection with a January 2019 mugging of an elderly man at a Montgomery hotel.
The second thing Rich believes needs to be done is for the Alabama Supreme Court to approve changes to bond guidelines, which would boost the bond for murder from $150,000 to $1.5 million.
Montgomery District Attorney Daryl Bailey made this very motion during a Criminal Rules Committee of the Supreme Court in November and it was approved. He is not certain when the court will address the rule change.
Bailey recommended the rule change in 2014 that changed murder bail from $75,000 to $150,000. He said his rationale for needing higher bail is simply the number of murder suspects free on bond who commit another crime. He said it also doesn’t make sense for suspects to face higher bonds for drug crimes than for murder.
“The fact that you can get arrested for having pills in your pocket and your bail be $1.5 million and the same day someone brutally murders someone and your bail is maxed at $150,000 is absolutely ridiculous,” Bailey said.
Rich said the Legislature also needs to tighten up the barriers for entry for bail bonds companies.
Currently, she said, bail bonds companies post just a $25,000 deposit with the court for them to obtain licenses. She said when these bonding companies fail to assure their clients turn back up to court, their deposits can be revoked. However, if this is done, she said, bail bondsmen will simply reincorporate under a new name and post another deposit with the court. She said the court revokes one or two licenses a year.
She said state lawmakers should also set industry rules requiring bonds companies to accept certain percentages of bond upfront without the use of payment plans.
Chris McNeil is a Mobile-based bondsman who has been in the industry for 26 years and is the president of the nine-member Alabama Professional Bail Bonding Board. He owns three bonds companies in Mobile County.
According to McNeil, bonds companies provide invaluable, constitutional services to the court system by providing accountability for those who are being charged with crimes while taking them out of jail and off the public’s dime. He said bail bonds services mean prosecutors and victims of crime can be assured perpetrators appear in court by putting their money on the line. He said this system is effective.
McNeil said bail bonds companies will negotiate loans on a case-by-case basis to assess risks and get co-signers and assurances before signing contacts. Taking into consideration the severity of crimes, the bond amount set, the accused’s background and cooperation with friends or family, this can take a few minutes or several days to get details in place.
Depending on the circumstance, McNeil said, bonds companies in Mobile are putting up bail for individuals with as much as 5 to 15 percent depending on the level of risks involved for an individual. He acknowledged payment plans are used and said they actually serve as a method to get regular updates from their clients on their whereabouts and status.
There is a nationwide debate over the ethics of cash bail, but McNeil said the Alabama system is operating smoothly. He dismissed the notion that a monetary bail system is unethical and said virtually everyone can make bail outside of extenuating circumstances.
“If someone can’t make bail, it’s normally because Mommy and Daddy or their friends have said they’ve had enough,” McNeil said. “Nine out of 10 times, they can’t make bail because they’ve burned bridges.”
Prosecutors can expect to have about a 14 percent failure-to-appear rate on their cases, McNeil said, but bail bonds services knock that rate down to 1 or 2 percent with recovery services.
“When you’re getting 98 to 99 percent of suspects to court, that’s a successful system,” he said.
He said signature bonds have been attempted in Mobile’s municipal court in the past and the failure-to-appear rate jumped to as high as 70 percent. The practice was reversed after only a few years. According to McNeil, Jefferson County is under a court order allowing signature bail for bond amounts up to $15,000. He said this is causing the Birmingham area problems and noted a bond for an attempted murder charge falls into this criteria and would allow a suspect to walk free with a flick of a pen. He said Alabama’s bondsman industry is looking to lobby the State Legislature to outlaw the practice.
McNeil echoed the need for Aniah’s Law, saying it gives judges more discretion. He told Lagniappe the Alabama Bail Bond Association supported the legislation when it was being deliberated in the Legislature this past year.
“Not everyone needs to be out of jail,” McNeil said.
The state’s Bail Bond Association is in favor of the State Legislature bumping up the court bond required to offer services in a jurisdiction, according to McNeil. He said the amount has not been hiked in several years and could be raised. He acknowledged Rich’s concerns there have been businesses in the past that have taken advantage of the low court bond. However, he said, the Alabama Professional Bail Bonding Board, formed almost three years ago, has ushered in oversight and accountability in this regard.
The board is tasked with licensing bond agents, bounty hunters and businesses, setting industry standards, and providing disciplinary action. If a bonds company has their court bond revoked, they cannot be relicensed, he said.
McNeil pushed back on the suggestion the Legislature should remove payment plans as a tool for bail bondsmen, saying it would unnecessarily restrict individuals from meeting bail amounts. He said if such legislation were considered, the Southern Poverty Law Center would be the first to speak out against it. He took issue with court-ordered cash components saying some judges in the state believe it could be an unconstitutional practice.
McNeil said Alabama bail bonds leaders compared the state against others when it was putting together legislation to form its oversight board. He said the state fairs favorably.
“Our system is working,” McNeil said.