Feds look to soften bail bond rules

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Krystal Banks has been a bail bondsman in Detroit for nearly two decades. During that time, she’s seen a lot — and she’s made some good money, too.

Krystal Banks, owner of Banks Bails Bonds, stands outside 36th District Court on in Detroit. Banks fears her livelihood could be in jeopardy, along with that of 79 other Michigan bail bond companies, as a result of a bill pending in the U.S. House that seeks to replace cash bonds for defendants with supervised release.

Banks says criminal defendants have left tens of thousands of dollars with her when they skipped bail for a court hearing. In such cases, the money goes to the county for a fine.

But Banks fears her livelihood could be in jeopardy, along with that of 79 other Michigan bail bond companies, as a result of a bill pending in the U.S. House that seeks to replace cash bonds for defendants with supervised release.

Bail is money paid to a court that a defendant forfeits if he doesn’t show up for trial or other hearings. A suspect who can’t afford bail may hire a company that pays the amount for a nonrefundable fee, usually 10 percent of the bail.

“Bail is a simple process,” Banks said. “It’s ‘money or the body,’ but you can’t have both.”

The federal legislation comes as debate is growing about the use of cash bonds for criminal defendants. Illinois, for instance, adopted a law earlier this year that ended mandatory cash bonds for nonviolent offenses. Other states are considering similar measures.

Civil rights groups and other critics say cash bonds penalize poorer defendants and violate the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Canton attorney Nabih Ayad, a former member of the Michigan’s Civil Rights Commission, says the debate on bail bonds “is truly a civil rights issue.”

“(Poor) individuals are at so much of a disadvantage,” said Ayad. “They’re already being punished before trial because the bond is so high at times. They’re punishing the individual before they are found guilty. It’s unconstitutional.”

Others, such as Detroit Police Chief James Craig, would like to see higher bonds for some defendants, arguing that public safety is compromised because some dangerous criminals are being set free with what he calls “ridiculously low bonds.”

In Michigan, there are no rules governing bond amounts for suspected lawbreakers.

Banks, the owner of Banks Bail Bonds and the author of the book “Don’t be a Dumb(---) Criminal,” says bail bond companies shouldn’t be blamed when defendants can’t afford to post the amount needed to regain their freedom.

“They feel people can’t afford to get out of jail,” Banks said. “We don’t set the bail. How about you blame the judge who set the bond too high?”

Michigan lawmakers and others in the state’s legal circles are closely monitoring the debate and the progress of the House measure and other proposals dealing with bail bonds, an extension of British law that has been used in the U.S. for more than 200 years.

The “No Money Bail Act of 2016,” which seeks to eliminate the use of cash bonds, was sponsored by lawmakers including U.S. Reps. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield; Ted Lieu, D-California; Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-New Jersey; and Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona. The bill is pending in two House committees, said Lieu’s chief of staff, Marc Cervasco.

Lieu and his co-sponsors say the bond system, as it exists now, works against fair treatment for some defendants.

“We cannot both be a nation that believes in freedom and equal justice under the law, yet at the same time locks up thousands of people solely because they cannot afford bail,” Lieu said in introducing the bill. “We cannot both be a nation that believes in the principle of innocent until proven guilty, yet incarcerates over 450,000 Americans who have not been convicted of a crime.”

A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Kamala Harris, D-California, and Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. Called the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, the bill is aimed at modifying or replacing the bail system by tying reforms to grant money.

“This should not be a partisan issue,” the senators wrote in an editorial published in the New York Times in July.

“First, our legislation empowers states to build on best practices. Kentucky and New Jersey, for instance, have shifted from bail toward personalized risk assessments that analyze factors such as criminal history and substance abuse,” Harris and Paul wrote. “These are better indicators of whether a defendant is a flight risk or a threat to the public and ought to be held without bail.”

Ayad, the Canton attorney, said not being able to make bond means defendants sometimes spend more time in jail awaiting trial than the sentence they eventually receive. “Some of these people don’t have money to eat,” he said. “How are they going to pay bond money?”

Those in the bail bond industry say they help protect the community.

“You have some serious criminals ... especially in Detroit,” said Banks, who operates three bail bonds offices.

Kim Dunn, the owner of AAA Bail Bonds of Michigan in Clinton Township, says there should be a review of laws governing his industry but eliminating it altogether would be going too far.

Kim Dunn, owner of AAA Bail Bonds of Michigan in Clinton Township, believes cash bonds help the courts ensure defendants show up.

Dunn said revamping the system and hiring social workers and police officers to monitor defendants who are released could prove costly to the public. “To put the onus on the taxpayer who never had the onus before is wrong,” said Dunn, who estimated his company handles about 600-650 bail bonds a year.

He’s open to eliminating cash bonds for misdemeanor offenses but says the system overall is a “very integral part of keeping the crime community in check” by making sure defendants show up for court and adhere to the rules of their release while awaiting trial.

Dale Hilson, president-elect of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, said his organization wants to make sure there is enough data to support any changes in the laws governing the state’s bail bonds industry.

“We want fairness for the defendant but also want to make sure victims are protected and make sure the community is safe,” said Hilson, who is also a member of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Criminal Justice Policy Commission

Among recommendations from the commission: Determine what factors courts are using to determine bail, whether those factors meet court rules and whether any factors need to be eliminated or revised to ensure defendants’ bonds are fair.

Craig said he’d like Michigan to adopt a structured bond schedule like other states, including California, where he was a police officer for 28 years.

“That would give the judges a guideline,” he said. “The way it is now, you’ll see one judge giving $100,000 bond, and another judge giving $1,000 for the same crime. It’s all over the place.”

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, who has been working informally on the issue, said discussions have led to some progress toward possible reforms.

“Here in Michigan, experts in all three branches of government are continuing to discuss ways to improve our system of pretrial justice,” McCormack said in a statement to The Detroit News. “In particular, the judicial branch is moving forward with a plan to enhance the information available to judges so that they can make more informed decisions.”

Staff Writer George Hunter contributed.