By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Sheriff Patrick Cannon, currently serving out the last months of a lame duck term after losing his bid for reelection in this summer’s primary, was unavailable for comment last week due to medical issues, and in any case has declined previously to talk with the Sentinel about the issue of uncollected bail bond forfeitures described in the accompanying article.
But Democratic sheriff contender Philip Street did return the Sentinel’s phone calls and he also has a place in this story: Street was Dade’s sheriff for 20 years before losing to Cannon in 2004, and former County Clerk Larry Cooper did not remember any bond forfeitures showing up as revenue for the county during Street’s tenure, either. The Sentinel asked him about that.
Street denied that the collection ratio on his watch was a dead zero – “I do know there were bondsmen that paid forfeitures during my tenure” – and said he had dipped into bonding companies’ escrows when they failed to pay. “One of them I shut down because he wasn’t picking his people up,” he said.
And he said whatever the batting average of bondsmen for paying up, the companies do serve a purpose. “It’s a necessary evil of the judicial system,” he said. “In Dade County if there’s 100 people a month arrested, 75 percent of those people live out of the county. Are they going to sit in jail and the county’s going to feed them and take care of them, or are you going to have bonding companies in place that will take that risk to make sure they show back up at court?”
The issue is, the Sentinel pointed out, that the bonding companies don’t seem to be holding up their end of the bargain, neither producing the arrestee nor making good monetarily on the risk.
Even so, said Street, if the detainee has a medical condition that would become the county’s responsibility if he stayed in jail, the bonding company saves the county thousands and thousands of dollars by springing him.
In some cases he remembered, said Street, a bondsman might bond the person for no money down, collecting his fee through a payment plan. "Whether the bonding company ever collected the money was none of the sheriff’s business and none of the county’s business,” he said.
One way or the other, if the bond was $1,000, the arrestee skipped bail, and the bonding company didn’t pay up, the county was still better off than if the person had sat in jail for a month soaking up groceries. “Is that a good business decision or a bad decision?” asked Street.
So why, asked the Sentinel make the arrestee pay at all? If the bonding company doesn’t keep its end of the bargain, it is collecting its fee for essentially nothing in return; but the greater unfairness of the system is that it allows the bondsman to extract money from the prisoner as bolstered by the strong arm of the law.
“The rules don’t let you just let them out,” said Street. Those charged with some lesser offenses can be released “OR,” or on their own recognizance, he said; but the justice system requires bail for most. “I followed the rules that the judges sent me,” he said.
As for the current $300,000-plus backlog of unpaid forfeitures, Street said he didn’t know what Dade had on the books right now but that any county that works with bonding companies gets used to arrears. “Chattanooga has the same problem. Hamilton County has it. Jackson and DeKalb County have it,” said Street. “But there are points in times when you have to say, hey, boys and girls, bring bond forfeitures in or we’re going to take your money.”
Street said that’s what he’ll do if he emerges victorious over Republican contender Ray Cross in next week’s election. “When I’m elected sheriff I’ll look into it and I’ll work with the courts, with the county attorney and the DA’s office and the bonding companies, and get all that resolved,” he said.
The Sentinel has not examined any records from Street’s previous terms and can neither verify nor refute his claim that bond forfeitures were collected, or escrows broached, during that time.