Prosecutors support judges’ move away from financial bonds

Published 7:20 pm Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Boyle County’s prosecutors say they’ve seen and support the change in setting of bonds that has resulted in more people getting out of jail in recent months.

A recent report from the Administrative Office of the Courts showed the percentage of defendants able to get out of jail without paying money has gone up substantially in Boyle and Mercer counties, which share the state’s 50th Circuit and 50th District courts.

The two counties were lowest in the state for offering non-financial bonds from 2014 through 2017, according to the report. In Boyle County, where the majority of the court cases occur, the percentage of non-financial bonds never got above 5 percent during those years, meaning only one in 20 defendants could leave jail without paying money. The state average during the same time period was between 39 and 41 percent.

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In 2018, Boyle’s non-financial bond percentage rose to 14 percent and Mercer’s went to 17 percent, while the state average remained essentially flat at 40 percent.

“It looked like 2018 was a big improvement from 2017 as far as setting non-cash bonds,” said Chris Herron, Boyle County attorney. “… I think that you’ll see that number increase.”

Herron is the lead prosecutor in Boyle County district court; he works every week with District Judge Jeff Dotson, who is responsible for setting bond conditions on every case.

Conditions can include no contact with a victim, random drug screens or no associating with co-defendants. They can also include possible forfeiture of assets if a defendant fails to appear for court. And the judge can set financial conditions that require a defendant to pay money before leaving jail, which they can only get back by continuing to show up for court while their case is processed.

“While I can recommend setting the bond … ultimately, it’s up to the judge to decide,” Herron said. “He (Dotson) is on board. I think he’s really on-board with this new push for not doing as much cash bonds and doing more of the other. He’s been really great to deal with.”

Dotson has not responded to requests from The Advocate-Messenger for comment on the AOC report.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Richie Bottoms, the lead felony prosecutor for Boyle and Mercer counties, said he has also seen the change in circuit court, where Circuit Judge Darren Peckler runs things. But he has also noticed an increase in people failing to show up for their court dates since the change began.

“I support what Judge Peckler has been doing with his bonds,” Bottoms said. “… I just think it’s important for the public to recognize the consequences of the change. It does appear there will now be a number of people with felony convictions” for failing to meet the conditions of their bonds.

Peckler has not responded to requests for an interview.

Bottoms said he’s seen a spike in the number of people he’s charging with bail jumping when they fail to show up for court. Those charges wouldn’t be possible if those same people had been kept in jail until their court dates, he said.

“I think the more people that get out … it is going to be a consequence where a number of people are going to wind up with felony records they would not otherwise have if they had come to court as they were supposed to or if they had been in jail.”

Bottoms said bail-jumping is a felony charge that cannot be expunged, which means defendants who fail to show up could wind up with a felony on their record they can’t get rid of later.

An analysis of 29 months of Boyle County indictments by The Advocate-Messenger does show a recent increase in the number of people indicted on bail-jumping charges.

In the 12-month period from October 2016 to September 2017, a total of nine people were indicted for bail jumping, according to the analysis. In the next 12 months, from October 2017 to September 2018, 23 people faced bail-jumping charges. In the last five months, from October 2018 to February 2019, there have been 25 people indicted for bail jumping.

Public defender Jessica Buck said it’s true there has been an increase in bail jumping indictments, but it’s a small fraction of cases compared to the numbers of people who get out of jail and then do show up for their court dates. Each Boyle County court date, there could be 100 cases heard in the morning and 100 more heard in the afternoon, she said.

“When no one gets out on bond, no one can be indicted for bail jumping,” she said. “… That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t let anyone out. … When more people get out of jail, there is going to be a small population that doesn’t show back up to court.”

Buck said there are alternatives to indicting people who fail to show up on new charges, such as issuing bench warrants and giving people an opportunity to explain before charging them.

“Mr. Bottoms doesn’t have to indict people on bail jumping. That’s a prosecutorial decision that he’s making,” she said. “… Not every county prosecutes bail jumping. Not every county spends the time to indict those people and make those new charges.”

Something like what Buck suggests is happening in Boyle County District Court. County Attorney Herron said Judge Dotson used to “automatically” enter a charge of failure to appear when someone didn’t show up for a court date. “Now, he’s giving them the benefit of the doubt.”

Herron said Dotson sends out a summons the first time someone fails to show up, then if they show up for their next court date, “he doesn’t hold it against them.”

Herron said he has also seen some people who are let out of jail not show up for court, like Bottoms has. He also sees some who are let out of jail for drug treatment programs skip out on the programs.

“It’s frustrating a little bit because we’re letting people out on non-cash bonds and they’re going to the Shepherd’s House or they’ll go to some other rehab place and then they’ll just up and leave,” he said. “… Sometimes I think cash bonds are good in a way. It holds people accountable.”

But Herron said the people who don’t show up or “abscond” are in the minority.

“I think that there’s probably more that are complying than aren’t,” he said. “I think more people are doing the right thing than not doing the right thing.”