Whoever came up with the saying “crime doesn’t pay” certainly did not have bail bonding agents in mind. Recent changes to state law could be a financial windfall to that often-overlooked industry operating on the fringes of the judicial system.
Beginning July 1, according to the new law, when a person pleads guilty to a crime, the company that bonded them out of jail is immediately released from the bond. This sets up a scenario where the defendant may have to pay the same bail company twice for the same case — or start doing jail time for a charge that may ultimately end in a sentence of probation and no jail time.
“Our concerns with this bail bond law is that it changes a well-established process that has worked well for years,” said John Zimmermann, an assistant district attorney for Davidson County. “Now unsuspecting defendants will have their bonds summarily revoked before they are sentenced. And this comes at a time when these individuals are the most vulnerable. It allows bonding companies the opportunity to charge even more money to defendants and their families for their freedom. As we see it, this law only benefits the bail bonding industry.”
Bail bonding companies serve individuals accused of a crime by putting up the bail money that a court says the accused must invest in the system to remain free while charges are adjudicated. State law limits that amount to no more than 10 percent of the court-ordered bond.
For example, a person charged with a crime is given a $5,000 bond by the judge at their initial court appearance. That person would then pay a nonrefundable $500 to a bonding agent to get out of jail while their case remains on the docket. The court then holds the bonding agent responsible for the full $5,000 should the accused violate the terms of their bail by not appearing in court.
Bonding agents must be able to show the court that they have the financial resources to cover all their outstanding bonds, not just a percentage of them. That rule means the bonding company wants its clients to resolve their legal troubles as quickly as possible so the individuals’ liability isn’t tied up in escrow.
Prior to this past legislative session, state law required that bail agents stay on the bond they issued until their client was exonerated or sentenced. Now bonding agents are off the hook when the client pleads guilty, regardless of when and how the individual will be sentenced.
Charles White Sr., president of the Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents, said the change is in line with the risk that bondsmen face after a conviction or guilty plea.
“When a bonding company writes a defendant’s bail, the party is presumed innocent until proven guilty and has a risk factor a bondsman considers,” White said. “When a defendant enters a plea [of guilty] or is convicted the risks are now exponentially greater, and the bonding company has honored its obligation to provide the appearance of the defendant in court.”
Furthermore, White suggests, the courts have options for post-conviction release.
“The court … may release the defendant with an own-recognizance bond or alter bail conditions of release … at any time prior to or after conviction, except where contrary to Tennessee law,” White said.
But the July 1 change in state law could have a significant impact. Many times an individual who pleads guilty expects probation, participation in a court-ordered program and no incarceration. The judge can accept the plea and set a date in the near future while they consider the punishment. They may have no intention of placing the offender in jail.
Of course in other cases, a judge may have every intention of sending an individual to jail, the offender knows it, and when given the time to get their affairs in order after having pleaded guilty, decide to run and leave the bonding company stuck with the tab.
With the change in the law, if a judge does not take time or receive a request to eliminate the bond, any person who pleads guilty to an offense would have to produce another nonrefundable 10 percent of their bail to a bond agent or sit in jail while the judge decides their sentence. It won’t matter whether they were expecting jail time — or whether they ultimately receive probation or some other alternative to incarceration.