WMBF Investigates: Dozens of defendants jump bond every month, never to return

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Every month, dozens of criminal defendants walk out of J. Reuben Long Detention Center after posting bond.  However, nearly half of those will walk away, never to return.  "Bond jumpers" not only cost the county millions in tax dollars, but put your safety at risk every day.

WMBF News Anchor David Klugh investigates why the local justice system isn't taking advantage of a resource that could put hundreds of those defendants back in jail within days.

They are accused of selling your child cocaine, breaking into your home, stealing your car, or burglarizing your business. And the chances are pretty good, the magistrate at their bond hearing will set them free, free of charge.

"The judges just aren't really paying attention to who they're giving these personal recognizance bonds to," says bondsman Mark Hazleton. A personal recognizance bond is when the judge sets bond for a defendant with a dollar amount attached, but requires no bond premium be put down.  The defendant is free to go, for free, until his next court hearing.  Most do come back, but with nothing compelling them to return, many others do not.

"I fully expect about a third of the people not to show back up after they make bond," says Horry County Solicitor, Jimmy Richardson.

Nine thousand of these bond jumpers are now hiding out among us at any given moment.

Corporal Douglas Hyman with the Horry County Sheriff's Office spends his eight-hour shift each day looking for those who fail to show up for their next court appearance.

"One of the reasons you have bench warrants," he says, "is because someone is making an effort to evade or to stay away from the courts."

Corporal Hyman is starting another week with a new stack of bench warrants to add to the old stack of bench warrants. His only job at the sheriff's office is to hunt down defendants who missed their court dates and don't want to be found. As often as not, it's an exercise in futility.

"By the time we get the warrant," he admits, "that person may be living in another state or another jurisdiction. Often times that involves outdated information such as addresses and contacts."

Sheriff Phillip Thompson's warrants division is swamped. The 12 deputies that make up that department could double in size and it would not be enough to put a dent in the 9,000 men and women bent on out-witting the law.

Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson says those defendants are a threat to public safety every day.

"Because we've got someone who hasn't complied, someone that has allegedly committed a crime, and the potential to recommit is there. So, certainly I would say it is a public safety issue," Sheriff Thompson says.

The problem may seem simple from the outside. Magistrates charged with setting bond for a defendant have the option of the personal recognizance bond mentioned earlier. Nothing but a promise to appear, and they're free.

In Horry County, these PR bonds are more popular in bond court than ever before. Why? To keep the jail from overcrowding.

Several years ago, J. Reuben Long Detention Center was suffering from overcrowding and magistrates were actually encouraged to set minor offenders free. The jail no longer has that problem, yet many will tell you the bond courts and magistrates have yet to change with the times.

The first to suffer when no money is required to get out of jail are bondsmen, and they are not happy with the direction the system has taken.

Bondsman Ware Kimmel and his competition haven't just seen defendants set free with no one to track them, but set free when it should be obvious to the court that they're never coming back.

Mark Hazleton, another bondsman, points to the recent arrest of a North Carolina woman arrested on a third shoplifting offense, this time with drug charges.  It's a crime that carries mandatory jail time.

"She got a PR bond," Hazleton explains.  "The biggest thing that bothered me about that: she was not from this state.  Oh, she's gone, because I looked it up. She never came back."

"Defendants, they get it," Kimmel adds. "They get it. The one's that have been in this, they get it. You bet your butt, they understand walking out for nothing."

One of those who Ware says understands is Miguel Angel Garcia.  He was jailed in Horry County on charges of illegal possession of a firearm, and heroin trafficking.  He was released on a PR bond and ordered to wear an ankle tracking device. Hours later, he was arrested for armed robbery and kidnapping after cutting off the ankle tracker.

Patty Fine is the Director of Victim's Services for the 15th Judicial Circuit. She's convinced part of the solution is making sure victims show up at a bond hearing.  She says there's no better way to put pressure on the magistrate.

"They have a right to be there at a bond hearing," Fine explains.  "They have a right to tell the judge how they feel.  You know, it's a lot harder for somebody to set a low bond if they have to look a victim straight in the face to do it."

The Solicitor is convinced there is a way to fix this problem, to make sure defendants still can get out of jail, have a bit more skin in the game and, if they fail to show up for court, have someone watching over them. He says it starts right here.

Jimmy Richardson says: require every defendant to secure a bond. Force them to see a bondsman.

"The responsibility would transfer not to the sheriff, but to the bondsman," says Solicitor Jimmy Richardson.  "So, instead of the sheriff hunting down 9,000 people or waiting for them to get back into trouble, if it were just a moderate bond, a $2,000 bond, then you got a bondsman with 2,000 reasons to go find him."

Bondsmen would certainly be in favor of that, and it's unlikely you'll hear complaints from deputies like Douglas Hyman. Tomorrow, he'll set out on the road once again, with another pile of bench warrants to add to yesterday's pile.

"It's pounding the pavement," says Corporal Hyman. "It's getting out and just going from place to place and making your time count."

This, as another batch of defendants cross their fingers that the magistrate will let them go with a signature.  Free bond to defendants in a system that may no longer be able to afford it, and one in three of those defendants is essentially telling the local courts: "Catch me if you can!"

This session, the South Carolina legislature did pass a bill that denies a second bond to a defendant who commits a violent crime while out on bond for another charge.   However, the bench warrants that keep the sheriff's office so busy are for minor crimes, and right now, there's no limit on the number of times one of those defendants can be jailed and released again.

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