WWAY INVESTIGATION: Making bond: The price of freedom
WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — From $2,000, all the way to a $1 million. That’s the recommended range New Hanover County judges and prosecutors follow when setting bonds. It’s not, however, really that cut and dry in a courtroom.
This is a look at how bonds works, or are supposed to work. It’s a WWAY investigation you’ll see only on 3.
WWAY started looking into jail bonds when the story about Nashid Porter caused a lot of confusion. Porter was awaiting trial for Brian Grant’s 2012 murder in New Hanover County when he was put on pre-trial release last year under a $10,000 unsecured bond, and electronic monitoring. On Nov.12, 2014, Duplin County deputies said Porter shot and killed a key witness in that trial, Obediah Hester. Authorities said they found Porter’s monitoring device eight miles from the shooting.
There are still so many questions about how this happened. Whether electronic monitoring is effective, is a matter for another day. What we’re talking about now is what went into setting bond for Porter, and all the other people arrested for crimes in the Cape Fear.
“There’s a whole host of factors that we look at when setting a bond,” District Attorney Ben David said.
David, and former Judge Tom Old, who’s now an assistant DA, said those factors include someone’s record, the charged offense, and flight risk.
“The facts of a case can widely vary,” David said.
“The judge has to balance all those things. They’ll listen to what the defendant says, if they have anything to say, or their lawyer,” Old said.
That’s why they both say there’s also intuition involved in asking for, and setting certain bonds.
“So, it’s judgement. It’s a process. It’s not science. It’s an art, I guess you could say, and that’s what we try and do,” Old said.
What Old and David say they also try to do is protect the public and be fair to the defendant all while keeping jail population and costs down.
“It’s crowded. In fact, it’s too crowded,” David said.
“When I was a judge, they said, ‘Why aren’t these people in jail longer?’ What they don’t understand is the cheapest part of that job is to build the jail, even though they cost millions of dollars. The operation of the jail is what’s expensive,” Old said.
It costs about $80 a day for each inmate, but it really varies, according to New Hanover County Sheriff’s spokesman Jerry Brewer. He adds that while the jail’s capacity is 673 inmates, it really cannot hold that many because they must separate inmates based on offense, mental health and gender.
“What we’re trying to do is use a scarce resource efficiently. That scarce resource is the New Hanover County jail, or the Pender County jail,” David said.
Wilmington bondsman Larry Powell, who was president of the North Carolina Bail Agents Association, said he knows how to use that scarce resource more efficiently.
“Put them under a secured bond,” Powell said.
So, what is the difference between a secured and unsecured bond?
Under an unsecured bond, you don’t have to pay anything unless you don’t show up to court. Under a secured bond, you have to pay the full amount in cash or pay a bondsman a percentage to get out of jail.
With their money tied to your court appearance, Powell said bondsmen help make a higher percentage of suspects show up.
“If we write a bond, do you know how many people percentage-wise that we get in court? 99 percent. Law enforcement is like 70 percent, because they have so much more to do. They have county boundaries,” Powell said.
Bondsmen do not have boundaries, though.
“We’ve been to Texas. We’ve been to New Orleans, and to Alabama, to Tennessee and brought people back who missed court,” Powell said.
He added that he thinks if judges handed down only secured bonds, not only would fewer defendants miss court, but fewer would have to stay in jail.
“We understand the street. We understand the people on the street. You would be surprised when someone goes to jail, how many of these family members will get together to pull these people out of jail,” Powell said.
Because in the end, David, Old and Powell said bonds are not supposed to be used as punishment.
“It’s inappropriate and wrong for bonds to be used in a punitive measure,” David said.
That’s one reason Porter’s bond was set at $10,000 before the alleged murder of a witness. David said his office can learn from cases like that.
“If they’re out of custody and they commit another offense, that’s something we feel very strongly about. They’re violating the terms of pre-trial release, and we want to make sure that those bonds are higher,” David said.
Higher bonds that Powell said he hopes come with a new law soon, one that requires all bondsmen to charge at least five percent.
“The judge put you under a $100,000 bond because he wants you to stay there. So, to me, you should not be able to be released unless you pay at least five percent,” Powell said.
When a defendant released on bail fails to appear for their court date, Powell said the forfeited bail bond money goes to the public school system. In 2007, fines and forfeitures of jail bonds accounted for more than $60 million in school funding across the state, according to a WRAL article.