'Bond Shopping': the jailhouse secret putting our community at risk

WMBF Investigates: 'Bond Shopping'

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - WMBF News is exposing the disturbing truth about bail bonds in South Carolina. Local prosecutors and judges say criminal defendants have a jailhouse secret that allows them to use the justice system in a way that was never intended, and it's putting all of us at risk.

It's called "bond shopping," where inmates accused of violent crimes are posting bond and getting out of jail for less than anyone thought possible.

Last summer, a University of South Carolina freshman was struck by a stray bullet in Columbia's Five Points area.  The honor student was instantly paralyzed.  The accused shooter, 20-year old Michael Smith, a career violent criminal, was out of jail on a discounted bond.

Three years earlier, Maurice Clemmons was also out of jail on a discounted bond. He walked into a suburban Tacoma, Washington coffee shop and murdered four Lakewood police officers as they prepared for their shifts.

Clemmons' freedom from the Pierce County jail required posting a $190,000 bond. Prosecutors, and Clemmons' victims, felt secure knowing he could never come up with the ten percent cash required to secure that bond. But he didn't have to.

Instead of paying the standard $19,000 premium, Clemmons' family worked the system. The man who would execute four police officers was freed for just over $3,000.

These two defendants knew what violent criminal defendants have figured out about our justice system: posting a bail, no matter how high it's been set, can cost almost nothing.

Clemmons, Smith, and hundreds of inmates from Washington to South Carolina are shortening their time in jail, regardless of the crime they're accused of committing.  All they have to do is something called "bond shopping,"  contacting one bail bondsman after another until they find the best deal on a bond premium.  That premium is usually 10 percent of the bail set by a judge in the case, but Prosecutors say ten percent premiums in South Carolina are nothing but a myth.

"It's a contract, and they can work it any way they want to," says Horry County Solicitor Jimmy Richardson.  "They could do less, they could accept less."

It's the jailhouse secret that many judges don't even know about. However, veteran bail bondsmen have watched the system change.

"When I started in the bonding business in 1998 there were 12 bondsmen in Horry County. There's over 40 now," says Ware Kimell, owner of Owens Bail Bonds.

Kimell has been issuing bonds to defendants in Horry County for 25 years.  He admits these accused criminals and their families will attempt to work the system by pitting one bondsman against another, and another, and so on, until they can finally get the cheapest bail possible. It was not, he insists, always that way.

"When they called each different bondsman, you got told 10 percent," says Kimell. "And that's what you're getting at here. Now, if you call 15 different bondsmen, you're gonna get 15 different prices."

And your federally-guaranteed right to a reasonable bond is getting cheaper everyday.

Ware gave an example of someone getting stuck with a $100,000 bond.  He says there was a time when that bond premium would have been at least $10,000.  Today?  "Between $1,500 and $2,000.

Welcome to the free enterprise system. Yes,  it applies to the justice system just as it does to Main Street. Bondsmen are for-profit operations. It is not their job to ensure public safety or set the standards by which inmates are freed from jail, but it is your right and responsibility to know that the person who committed a crime against your family could be back on the street for next to nothing.

If you thought 10 percent premiums were the law, you're not the only one.

"I've heard judges at times set bonds thinking, well, there's no way he'll make this bond," says Solicitor Richardson.  "But they're thinking along the lines that we are, that it's basically 10 percent of $250,000 means he's got to put up $25,000."

Bond is a valuable tool in assuring both public safety and the rights of the accused, and bondsmen insist no legislation can guarantee both. But rest assured, local prosecutors aren't finished attacking what they see as a flaw in the system, and veteran criminal defense attorneys like Conway's Morgan Martin will never stop defending it.

"You always have to weigh the fact that individual has been charged and then you say, 'Okay then he's a criminal it doesn't matter what happens to him.'  Well, no, he's not a criminal yet," insists attorney Morgan Martin.  "And so there are people who are not guilty of things, and so the extent that you punish them either by jail or monetarily that probably isn't fair. So, it's got to be a balance. It's sometimes a difficult line to walk."

When asked whether bond shopping and discounted bond premiums put the general public, particularly the victim and the victim's family, at risk, Richardson shrugged his shoulders.   "It's based on a ton of assumptions…you're kinda playing the odds," he says.

The jailhouse secret known to career criminals everywhere as "bond shopping" - it likely cost four Lakewood police officers their lives and a young honor student her quality of life.

The state legislature is getting ready to debate another flaw in South Carolina's bail bond system. Right now, if a defendant bonds out of jail and then commits another crime, he or she has the option of posting another bond for their freedom. This is common among career criminals in the state. All 16 of the state's solicitors are backing a bill that would prevent a second bond from ever being issued, keeping that inmate in jail until his trial.

Copyright 2014 WMBF News. All rights reserved.