Bail process may be answer to Loudon County's jail issues
Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com
For decades, those arrested in Loudon County had few choices when trying to make bail.
Defendants could raise the total bail set by the court or they could work with a single bail bonding company. For 10 percent of the set bail and a fee, the bondsman gets the client released from jail and insures his or her appearance in court.
The inability to make bail leaves the defendant no option but to stay in jail. During recent discussions about building a new jail, Loudon County commissioners have looked at how the inmate count is impacted by those who can’t make bail.
“It absolutely has a significant effect on the jail population,” said Commissioner Van Shaver.
According to head jailer Lt. Jake Keener, 44 percent of the inmates currently in the Loudon County jail are incarcerated because they can’t make bail. Historic data is not available, Keener said.
Overcrowding of jails because inmates can’t make bail is a nationwide problem. Of the more than 767,600 inmates in jails across the U.S., 60 percent are unconvicted offenders awaiting court action on a current charge, according to Bureau of Justice statistics from 2009, the most recent data available.
The insurance division of the state Department of Commerce licenses insurance companies that write bail bonds, according to Kevin Walters, spokesman. Tennessee Courts, or judicial districts, regulate the licensing and operation of bail bondsmen to operate in their courts or judicial districts, he said.
“For example, even if a bail bondsman has a limited license from our department and is going to issue bail bonds from licensed insurer, the court would have to approve the bail bondsmen to operate as a bail bondsman in that court and the court would have final say over whether it would accept a bail bond from any particular insurance company,” Walters said.
Until recently, Chaney Bonding was the only local bail bonding company allowed to work in Loudon County. The company is owned by the family of Loudon Chancery Court Clerk and Master Fred Chaney.
According to state law, it is unlawful for any person while serving as a constitutionally elected peace officer, or as such officer’s deputy, or any duly elected or appointed county official to act as a professional bondsman, directly or indirectly.
Rutherford County Circuit Court Clerk Melissa Harrell was forced by a court order in 2014 to shut down her family bonding company for such a conflict. Her attorney, Bryan Moseley, said the issue is still under appeal based on a state attorney general opinion that family members could operate the business as long as the officials are not getting a financial benefit.
Chaney did not respond to a request for an interview.
The good and bad of competition
The decision to allow more bonding companies into the county was in the hands of 9th Judicial District Judge Eugene Eblen.
Eblen, who recently announced his retirement, endorsed Chaney as the only bonding agency allowed to operate in Loudon County. City Bonding, located in Kingston, was also allowed to post bonds in the district but rarely ventured into Loudon County.
Cumberland Bonding entered Loudon County about 18 months ago. One of the largest bonding companies in the state — serving 20 counties — Cumberland is run by Andy Baggenstoss, a University of Tennessee and Catholic High School graduate.
He also owns several other bonding companies, including AAA Bonding, covering a total of 65 counties in the state.
Baggenstoss said he fought a five-year legal battle to get the chance to work as a bondsman in Loudon County. In 2013, the state appellate court overturned a previous ruling in Roane County that denied Cumberland permission to write bonds in the 9th Judicial District.
The taxpayers of Loudon County have benefitted from the increased competition, he said.
“Competition is good. Monopolies are not good,” he said.
The bail industry is a service to the taxpayers, allowing those innocent until proven guilty to remain out of jail until their court date so they can continue to support their families, and keeping the jail population — and costs — low, he said.
“I don’t want my tax dollars going to pay for new jails,” he said.
Russell Johnson, 9th Judicial District attorney general, has some concerns about competition among bail bondsmen.
At a meeting of the Loudon County Corrections Partnership Committee last month, Johnson, chairman of the committee, said one of the bonding companies in his district may be bonding inmates out on “promissory notes” or the promise to make payments.
Not requiring the 10 percent up front could create an unfair advantage, contrary to Judge Eblen’s approval of any bonding company in this district, he said.
The free market does not necessarily breed better service for the customer, he said. Because every bond company must charge the same price, it can lead to unscrupulous practices.
An example would be not charging the 10 percent in exchange for the defendant agreeing to wear a bonding company owned and installed GPS monitored ankle bracelet for a daily or monthly fee, then snatching the defendant back up and putting him or her in jail again when the defendant can no longer afford to pay the bonding company for the bracelet.
Baggenstoss said he is a big proponent of ankle monitors because they allow his company to cost effectively monitor the location and assure the appearance of clients at their court dates. Bracelets also allow the bonding company to assure compliance with other terms of the bond, he said.
He said his company does not write bonds for less than the standard rates.
“We’re in business to make money. It’s in our interest to charge the full 10 percent,” he said.
Johnson said he has had no formal complaints from defendants. He said he has held meetings with the judges and sheriffs in all counties in his district, including Loudon and Roane, and is scheduled to meet in Morgan County next. One of the things he would like to do, with approval from Loudon County General Sessions Court Judge Rex Dale, is require all bonding companies to actually locate, apprehend and return to jail those people who are on bond but fail to appear for their court dates.
“On the ones we had the judge sign off on in early January they will have to have them in jail or the companies will have to pay the bond amounts in full by mid-July when their six-month grace period will have expired,” he said.
Assuring the appearance of their clients in court is the most important part of the bondsman’s profession, Baggenstoss said.
“It costs us a lot of money to track these people down,” he said.
Johnson said other states have moved more aggressively — despite strong opposition from lobbyists — to regulate the bail bonding business.
In 1976 Kentucky abolished bail bonding for profit. The General Assembly created the Pretrial Services Agency to administer a pretrial release program as a division of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Kentucky does not permit commercial bail bonds. Therefore, only peace offers within the state can arrest or detain individuals. Others, must get a warrant for the arrest. Bond agents from other states seeking to arrest a fugitive who has fled to Kentucky must get a warrant.
Other states have also developed pretrial release programs. In Broward County, Fla., county commissioners were faced with the prospect of building a $70 million jail but instead decided to double pre-trial release services. After one year, the program had reduced overcrowding in the jail and saved $20 million.
Commissioner Shaver said he’s all for increased competition in the bonding business or pre-trial release programs if they will reduce the number of inmates in the jail and possibly reduce the need for a new jail.
“The solution to all problems is not more money. I’m all for thinking out of the box to save the taxpayers money,” he said.