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Despite its name, the Office of Criminal Finance (OCF) on the fourth floor of D.C. Superior Court does nothing illicit. This is where distraught family members queue every morning to pay bail and spring loved ones from jail cells in the basement.
When criminal defendants (or their relatives) can’t afford the high price of bail, they turn to bail bondsmen who, in exchange for a fee, assume the cost of the bond and guarantee the court that the defendant will appear for trial.
Just three years ago, the hallway of the OCF teemed with bondsmen anxious to write bail. But today, the hallway is vacant. Asked for a list of bondsmen licensed to operate in the city, an OCF clerk slips a list of the names under the glass partition separating her from the public.
“There ain’t but two,” the clerk says.
The vibrant trade of bonding all but died in Washington late last year because of a Superior Court scandal and a bail reform measure passed by the D.C. Council (see “Bail Out,” 10/23/92). In October 1992, there were 11 companies writing bonds. Now, just two pairs of brothers ply the market: the Stancils (Albert and Gary) and the Mitchells (Mardis and Willie).
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The scandal came first and in many ways inspired the measures that followed. In 1990, an internal Superior Court audit revealed that over the course of a decade the city had failed to collect nearly a million dollars from bondsmen whose clients had skipped bail. A subsequent investigation by the Internal Affairs Division of the Metropolitan Police Department and the U.S. Attorney revealed that many of these debts were not mere accidents of bookkeeping. Courthouse clerks had deliberately altered records, allowing several bondsmen to escape obligations of more than $100,000 each.
The authorities pledged to clean house. Then-U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens convened a grand jury to hear evidence against clerks suspected of having received bribes. For its part, the D.C. Council reformed the bail system. Under the old law, judges could require steep cash bonds to ensure that defendants would appear in court. Those who couldn’t post bond—or afford the bondsman’s 10 percent fee—simply waited in jail, prisoners of their limited pocketbooks. The council’s Bail Bond Reform Act of 1991 prohibited judges from setting money bonds against impoverished defendants, who constitute a large share of the defendants filing through the court and are the lifeblood of the bondsmen’s business. Cash bonds may now be imposed only against defendants wealthy enough to afford them. The subsequent loss in trade, combined with the newly discovered debts, pushed many bond writers out of business in 1992.
At the height of the grand jury investigation, it appeared as though the bondsmen would end up being their own clients. A number were called before the grand jury while the U.S. Attorney’s Office fed rumors to the press that bondsmen and courthouse clerks would be indicted. Between the reforms and the investigation, it looked like a death sentence for the business.
Yet the three-year investigation produced no wholesale purge of the bail system. The grand jury issued only two indictments, neither of them against bondsmen. Court clerks Thomas Lindsey Jr. and Herman Smith both pleaded guilty to watered-down charges stemming from the investigation. Lindsey was convicted in December ’92, but has not yet been sentenced. Smith, convicted in March ’93, was sentenced and given parole.
At a March ’93 hearing, Stephens’ office alleged that three bondsmen had bribed Smith; all three once owed large amounts of money to the city. Although the U.S. Attorney never did file charges against the trio, all three are now out of business.
Now, however, the D.C. Council is considering a measure to revive the bondwriting trade. The bill, sponsored by Councilmember Harold Brazil (D-Ward 6), would allow judges to set money bonds for indigent defendants again.
One opponent of the bill is Jay Carver, head of the Pretrial Services Agency, which supervises defendants released under such nonfinancial conditions as personal recognizance or participation in drug treatment programs. Carver, a regular critic of the bondsmen, argues that if defendants present a danger to the community, they should be held in jail until their hearings—not released because they can make bail or hire a bondsman. Likewise, those who pose little danger should not be held in jail simply because they lack money. Last week, Carver pledged to oppose the Brazil measure at a public hearing held on Thursday, Sept. 30.
“He hates our bill,” says Lori Parker, an aide to Councilmember Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3), whose judiciary committee is considering the bill. She explains that the increased use of money bonds would reduce the role of Carver’s Pretrial Services Agency. Under current law, Parker says, defendants can simply claim they are too poor to pay any bond set by the judge—who may then set them free for free. Under Brazil’s proposal, judges will again apply financial restrictions to the poor as well as the rich.
“We don’t mean to be hard about this,” Parker says. “We don’t mean to put poor people in jail because they can’t afford bail. But a lot of people laugh at the judicial system because, basically, they can walk.”
If Brazil’s bill passes, there will be a place for bondsmen—though probably not as large a place as in their heyday, when judges routinely set huge bails to ensure appearance. The new bill does not alter many provisions of the 1991 reform: Judges are still instructed to send defendants into mandatory drug treatment programs, halfway houses, and probationlike supervision instead of cash-on-the-barrel whenever possible. The market for bondsmen would improve, but only marginally.
Even that is rare good news in a line of work that seemed headed the way of carriage-makers and corset salesmen.