As the state legislature convenes Tuesday for its regular session, some lawmakers are hoping to tackle a persistent problem within the S.C. courts system – violent offenders who get out of jail on minimal bonds and then commit more crime because they are under little or no supervision.
At the heart of the problem is a bail program called percentage bonds or “10 percent to the court” bonds, which let defendants post 10 percent of their full bond amount with the clerk of court rather than a surety bondsman. Once the 10 percent has been paid, the defendant is set free and there is no bondsman assigned to make sure the defendant stays out of trouble or shows up for future court dates.
National studies show that people released on percentage bonds are more likely to commit additional crimes while they are awaiting trial and are much less likely to show up for their court dates. Also, if a percentage bond defendant fails to show up for court, solicitors often have no way to collect the remaining 90 percent of the bond that’s owed.
A recent study by The Sun News shows the number of percentage bonds given in Horry County increased by 27 percent from 2009 to 2012, the most recent data available.
State Rep. Tracy Edge, R-North Myrtle Beach, is working on legislation that would make some defendants ineligible for such bonds if they have been charged with a violent crime.
“It would take away a judge’s discretion to issue such bonds and say nobody gets a free pass if they’re up on a violent charge,” Edge said, adding that such legislation likely would be on a fast-track to passage because of the mood at the Statehouse.
Edge said the issue of repeat violent offenders has been a hot topic among legislators ever since a University of South Carolina freshman was paralyzed in October after being hit by a stray bullet in Columbia’s Five Points section. A man with a history of violent crimes is accused of shooting the 18-year-old college student. That man was on probation at the time of the shooting.
Two proposed bills that could help curb violent repeat offenders have been prefiled by legislators. The first would make any person charged with criminal domestic violence ineligible for a percentage bond. The second would let judges increase the amount of prison time a person could receive if that person commits another violent crime while out on bond.
“Everyone is entitled to a reasonable bond, but one of the prerequisites of that bond is that you don’t commit additional offenses,” said Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, who prefiled the second bill. “We need to do something to curb recidivism, and this bill would give prosecutors and judges an additional option.”
McElveen’s bill would let judges extend a repeat offender’s sentence by up to 40 percent of the maximum. For example, someone facing a maximum 10-year sentence for a violent crime could get an additional four years in prison if he or she commits another violent crime while out on bond.
“They would be looking at some very serious time, and maybe that would prevent them from committing another crime,” he said.
The S.C. Bail Agents Association is asking the legislature to modify the existing law that allows percentage bonds by forcing bond recipients to find a friend or relative willing to put up collateral for the remaining 90 percent of the bond amount. In most cases, that collateral would include real estate that could be sold if the bond recipient fails to show up for court.
“Currently, the state is experiencing significant, untracked losses due to unpaid cash bail,” according to a memo prepared by the association. Forcing defendants to secure collateral for their bonds would help localities “significantly increase revenues to offset the costs associated with these defendants that have absconded.”
In addition, pressure from family and friends who stand to lose their property would help ensure defendants stay out of trouble and show up for court, the association says.
The state’s solicitors are backing a pair of bills – similar measures in both the House and Senate – that were first introduced last year. Both bills would allow judges to revoke the initial bond of someone who commits another crime while awaiting trial if that person is deemed a threat to the community. That decision would be made by a circuit court judge instead of the magistrate judges who typically set bonds.
State Sen. Bill Campsen, R-Charleston, previously told The Sun News that judges often are too lenient on repeat offenders.
“We need to stop this revolving door where folks are released on bail, they commit another offense and then they get bonded out again,” said Campsen, who co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill that solicitors support. “In some instances, we have people who are out on multiple bonds for different crimes.”
The House version also calls for a mandatory sentence of at least five years for someone who commits a crime or attempts to commit a crime while on bond for another offense. In such cases, the sentence could not be suspended and probation would not be allowed.
“Our No. 1 legislative agenda this year is on bonds,” said Jimmy Richardson, solicitor for the 15th Judicial Circuit, which includes Horry and Georgetown counties. “We and the bondsmen are on the same page with this issue.”
Richardson said he would like to see the legislature abolish the percentage bond system.
“It would be fine if they had to go through a surety bondsman,” Richardson said. “There is a big advantage to being able to call up a neutral bondsman if someone doesn’t show up for court.”
While law enforcement and legislators are pushing for change, the state Supreme Court has declined to enter the fray.
Edge in 2012 sent a letter to S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, asking her to issue a statewide order barring the use of percentage bonds. Toal, in her response to Edge, said she did not want to take that discretion away from judges.
That leaves the issue up to the legislature, Edge said.
“I’m not for filling jails with non-violent criminals, but this is an issue that needs to be addressed,” he said. “Fixing this problem is easily possible and a good way to fight crime.”
Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281 or follow him on Twitter @David_Wren_.