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Court officials reviewing how bail gets set in Macon, Bibb

Court officials are reviewing how bail is set for people accused of crimes in Macon and Bibb County, with plans to increase the bail amounts in many cases.

A panel of judges and prosecutors, as well as Sheriff Jerry Modena, is in the process of revising a “booking code sheet” that was last amended in 2004.

Bail, sometimes called a bail bond, is money or property that is forfeited to a court if a person accused of a crime fails to appear in court. The consensus of the panel is that the bail sheet is outdated, and that the minimum bail amounts for about 250 crimes are too low.

“We in the Magistrate Court set most of the bonds,” said William Shurling III, an associate Magistrate Court judge. “What we needed was for all of the judiciary to get together and come up with a better bond list.

Their goal is to increase the bail amounts by enough to keep people charged with violent crimes from returning to the streets too readily. But they also want to make sure that bails aren’t set so high that a disproportionate number of people have to stay in jail because they can’t afford to post them.

When someone is arrested on a criminal charge in Bibb County and is booked into the Bibb County jail, a magistrate sets bail using the code sheet. The sheet provides guidelines for misdemeanor and felony charges ranging from check forgery and child abandonment to gang melees.

“It’s an initial low-end amount,” said Sandy Matson, an assistant district attorney. “Judges always have the discretion to go higher.”

People charged with felonies such as murder, rape or eight other crimes known as the “10 deadly sins” must appear before a Superior Court judge.

In Bibb County, jail officials say most suspects who are up for bail use bonding companies, rather than posting cash bonds or property bonds, to gain release from custody. On average, suspects end up paying about 12 percent of the bond amount.

Most inmates who come to the jail never become eligible for bail, however, according to jail records.

As of late March, bail had been set for only about 250 of the nearly 900 people behind bars, including those charged with misdemeanors and felonies.

Eighty-one people had been denied bail because of the serious, violent nature of the charge against them.

But the large majority of the inmates weren’t eligible to post bail because of probation holds: The new charge had violated the terms of their State or Superior court probation.

“It all kind of came to fruition at the end of last year,” said Matson, who is leading the re-evaluation of the bail list. “There were a couple of cases that caught our attention.”

‘CAUGHT ALL OUR ATTENTION’

Modena received several calls from residents about the case of 17-year-old Kristofer Patterson.

Patterson is charged with robbing a pregnant Domino’s pizza deliverywoman in late November. A 16-year-old also faces charges in the incident.

The public, the sheriff said, expressed concerns when Patterson was issued the minimum bail on the robbery charge — $1,200.

“Until we had the rash of robberies in the city, we hadn’t had any problem with it,” Modena said. “I think what happened was the bond for robberies should have been higher and it wasn’t, and that caught all our attention.”

“We have to be very careful that we do not send back to the streets violent and habitual offenders,” said William Randall, chief judge of the Magistrate Court, who would ultimately approve the new bail list.

Randall said there are several factors at play when judges set bail.

“We look at criminal history. We look at severity of the crime. We’re looking at trying not to be too excessive and trying not to overcrowd the jail,” he said. “You don’t want to violate a person’s right to a reasonable bond. It’s a situation where you have to strike a fair and just method.”

The poverty rate in Bibb County, Shurling said, needs to be considered during the process.

“We would not want to unduly tax people who have little or no income,” he said. “Is this some effort to keep poor people in jail? Absolutely not.”

Russell Nelson, chief deputy of corrections and court services at the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office, said about a quarter of inmates already cannot afford to post bail.

“I would say about 25 percent of people that are in jail are unable to make bond due to a bond amount that is extremely high and lack of a job,” he said.

Within the last 2 1/2 years, the jail has added nearly 450 beds for inmates. The expansion marked the end of a 20-year-old federal court order mandating more space. Explaining the county’s reported 22 percent decrease in crime from 2006 to 2007, Modena once said, “The additional jail space has enabled us to hold more offenders and to hold them longer. Because of that, many repeat offenders have stayed off the streets and away from a career of crime.”

The sheriff said he would like to see that trend continue.

“Running a jail isn’t like running anything else around here. We have a moving system. When the system quits moving, you start overcrowding,” he said. “You put the bond too high, you’ll have 900 people in here for writing bad checks.”

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report.

To contact writer Ashley Tusan Joyner, call 744-4347.

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