Bail bond company owners Joanna Peterson and Tasha Thomas have seen the reality shows about the bail bonds industry. And the terrible commercials. Those shows get ratings and those ads get clients--they also do damage to their profession. For every television advertisement selling any types of legal services, there are many in the industry who loathe the fast food model of justice.
You won’t see Joanna or Tasha riding a cartoon jaguar to the jail or pretending to be something they aren’t. They have too much work to do and too many people to help. Thomas bailed out most of the people who were arrested by the police at a recent protest downtown. Nearly all of those charges were dropped, but every known case came with a bond. Santana Bernardo was filming the protests and arrests on the sidewalk across from the courthouse when he was tackled, arrested, jailed for the first time in his life. He needed to post bond to get out of a jail infected with COVID-19, and where inmates have been brutally beaten by fellow inmates for simply wanting to make a phone call. Thomas was there to bail him out.
They work all hours. “It’s about helping people reenter back into society, getting a job, moving on and being benefi cial in society,” says Peterson. Thomas, a former social worker, desires to start a program to help people overcome the odds stacked against those who become involved with the criminal justice system. Refusing the stereotype made popular on reality television, “I am a listening ear. You may have a defendant on drugs or with no family,” Thomas says. She tells of a client with nowhere else to go and plenty of reasons to lose hope. She invited him over for Thanksgiving dinner. “It’s building relationships, Tasha says. “It’s building bonds… some of the people I have encountered are younger people and a majority of African American descent. I am out there in the community because I was raised in the same community. People tend to respect you if you respect them. I just need you to make sure you go to court. The rest we can work out.” “We provide transportation. We make sure you can get to court, get a zoom or a phone,” Peterson adds.
The criminal justice system is imperfect. In fact, it’s quite broken. Some aspects haven’t changed since the 1800’s. Some haven’t changed in over 1000 years; monetary bail is one of those antiquities most of us don’t know much about. In its simplest form, bail is the court system’s method of assuring attendance and compliance in exchange for the privilege of not remaining in jail until trial. The concept is this: yes, you are innocent until proven guilty, but the government needs you to make a signifi cant fi nancial deposit in your innocence to make sure you come back to court. Making matters worse, historically, it was the sheriff who decided if you got bail or not, and for how much. Board certifi ed criminal trial attorney and former prosecutor, Finley Williams offered his perspective, “Unfortunately, almost all charges are given monetary bail even though the Florida Statutes call for non-monetary bail to be considered fi rst. This results in a “debtors prison” where only people of means are able to get out of jail while they await trial.”
This system is old, very old, and dates to Anglo-Saxon England. A person accused of wrongdoing would be required to fi nd an independent third party to serve as a surety, a middle-man, who agreed to pay the victim the money if the accused disappeared. That was over 1000 years ago. In 1791, the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted. It says: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fi nes imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments infl icted.” It took its words from the English Bill of Rights (1689), which says, “That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fi nes imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments infl icted.” In 1791, larceny, burglary, and forgery could in certain cases result in hanging. Many countries were still quartering, chain hanging and otherwise butchering the accused without a scintilla of the evidence standards needed today. They’d rot in disease fi lled jails. In their defense, if someone left town, there was no Facebook to see where they checked in. They were likely gone for good. People interchange the words bail and bond, but they are different. The bail is the financial guarantee the court imposes. Like with the stock market, (stocks and bonds), the bond here is an instrument of debt.
A person can use a bail bondsperson and only pay a fraction of the bail. The bondsperson files a bond and is responsible for making sure you come to court. According to the Burns Institute for Justice and Fairness, in 1898 an entrepreneur in San Francisco, California started the fi rst formal bail company and the concept spread. On any day, 400,000-500,000 innocent people sit in jail awaiting trial. It is even worse with COVID-19 shuttering jury trials across the country. Nearly all of them have constitutional right to be free from detention until convicted of their crimes. Others are being held for minor charges while awaiting trial. Sure, they have a defense and are innocent, but a guilty plea may allow freedom sooner. “As a former state attorney you would see this all the time; plea now for a reduced offer or risk going to trial and getting more time. Most people don’t want to risk that and would rather get out of jail immediately for obvious reasons. Even more concerning is when a case falls apart and a prosecutor then just ‘tries to get what they can’ as opposed to just dropping a case they can no longer prove,” said Williams.
Innocent people choose to falsely plea guilty for economic reasons. When Santana Bernardo’s and 53 others were arrested on Sunday May 31, 2020 six people plead guilty, rather than paying bond. Two weeks later, the state attorney “declined to file charges” against 48 protesters. They served time for crimes that the state attorney eventually dismissed. California has done away with cash bail. Washington, D.C. has, too. Money does not come into pre-trial decisions on whether someone is going to come to court. Truman Morrison, senior judge on the D.C. The Superior Court puts it like this: “money bail is a joke.” In fact, he points to statistics that excessive pretrial incarceration increases the likelihood of recidivism. Criminal behavior can be contagious and learned. Being locked up can also create more desperation and depression. In Jacksonville, the Sheriff’s Offi ce police union President Steve Zona recently lambasted a county judge who offered a “mere $16,000 bond” to a criminal defendant who Zona claimed “seriously injured” a sheriff’s officer. No one involved in the court proceeding noted the injury at the initial appearance. The injury to the officer’s hand also appeared to occur when hitting the arrestee’s face.
Zona's actions harken back to 1791. Police setting bonds by mocking and threatening judges. Indeed, the bond industry has a bad reputation. However, locally bail bonds are the primary option for pretrial release. Crime is up. Even standing on a sidewalk filming a protest in Jacksonville can get you tackled and arrested for unlawful assembly. Joanna and Tasha recognize the challenges, but strive to work well with law enforcement.
The systemic racism and injustice in their professions are real. They cite example after example of unfair bonds, where a white person is released from jail while a black person is kept in jail because of unaffordable bail. And then there is the threat of death, the ultimate cruel and unusual punishment for a misdemeanor offense. Thomas’ own cousin was killed by a police offi cer in 2016. “He was never able to make it to court,” she says. “People say ‘all lives matter,’ and they do, but right now we are focused on the lives which are being taken.” It hits home with them as mothers, too. Both reflected on the concerns they have as parents of Black children and the “talk,” they give regularly out of fear and love. Keep still, keep your hands still, don’t be combative, don’t say you know your rights even though you have rights. But I need you to live, so let’s fight (for) these rights a different way.
Meanwhile, local governments spend more on law enforcement and less on alternatives. “There’s a lot of stuff in our communities which have been taken away. It’s a social imbalance,” Thomas scolds. By getting rid of the bail bonds industry, without addressing an alternative, Peterson points out it only increases the power of the police. “If it is not my job to bring someone in, police will have to.”
When talking reform, one has to start with the options police have to institute pre-arrest diversion in the form of issuing citations or notices to appear in court, especially for misdemeanors. Why require bail on someone with ties to the community? Why require bail for someone who committed a minor offense? Pre-arrest diversion, such as issuing citations or notices to appear in court, prevents someone from being jailed. State Attorney Melissa Nelson campaigned on issuing civil citations and notices to appear in court for juvenile offenders.
“This new agreement for pre-arrest diversion will expand and enhance the juvenile civil citation program uniformly throughout the circuit,” her offi ce said. Tasha and Joanna would like to see that adopted for more adults. However, Thomas goes further, “My whole thing with my social work background is, if you are going to take the time to issue an ROR (release on recognizance ) on simple misde- meanor crimes, why even introduce them to the jail? Give them the ticket and release them.” She points out that if the jail needs full beds or justi-fi cations for more spent tax dollars at the cost of constitutional rights, then at least let’s call it what it is- greed, not criminal justice.
In some ways, society hasn’t learned from the 1700’s. The public and most vocal face of our police force is allowed to threaten judges. It seems to be working-- most of the protester’s bonds were doubled while they were in jail. Does Steve Zona get the credit or the blame? Tasha and Joanna urge reform, but also stand as a safety net and constitutional gatekeepers. When our government has the courage to fi nally examine the generational impact of locking people up, Tasha and Joanna will be knocking at the door, ready to help.