Changes in the amount of bail that offenders must post to get out of jail have sparked a controversy among county officials and residents.
Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena says the county jail is near capacity and that the county risks being placed under federal oversight and ordered to build a new jail wing if the inmate population doesn’t decrease.
In late May, the county revised its list of suggested bails for specific crimes, raising many of the amounts. Bail is money or property that will be forfeited to the court if a defendant fails to appear for trial.
Since that time, Modena said he has seen an increase of about 100 people who are eligible for bail, but who are remaining in jail.
“A number of them just don’t have the money,” he said.
The jail has reached its 966-person capacity at least three times since bail amounts were raised in late May, Modena said.
As a solution, officials have reverted to a lower suggested bail list revised in 2004 in hopes that more people accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies will be able to afford to get out of jail, freeing up space.
But several Neighborhood Watch members oppose such a shift, saying that they favor the higher bonds even if it means it costs the county more money.
“Overcrowding of the jails isn’t a reason to let them out on a lower bond,” said Ainsley Hall, vice president of the Rosa Taylor-Riverside Park Neighborhood Watch group.
The situation presents a delicate balancing act, County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said.
“Nobody wants to waste taxpayer money, and nobody wants to put the public at risk,” he said.
Associate Bibb County Magistrate William Shurling said magistrate judges are now using the older bail list as a guide, but they are now attaching conditions to the bails to prevent an offender from possessing a weapon, revisiting the place where a crime happened or contacting a victim.
Chief Magistrate William C. “Billy” Randall said he hopes the conditions will reassure the public and the business community that something is being done to help stem the flow of crime.
“By putting these conditions on it, it puts a person on notice,” he said.
If the person violates the terms of the conditions, the bail bond can be revoked and the person sent to jail, Randall said.
The higher bail list still is being used at the jail when a person is first arrested, Chief Deputy Russell Nelson said.
The person can either post the bail or wait to see a magistrate, who reviews whether the amount is fair and who has the authority to lower a bail amount based on the circumstances of the case, he said.
Shurling said the magistrates cannot assign a bail bond lower than the amount on the old list.
Before late August, inmates sometimes had to wait 48 hours before they appeared before a judge. In that time, the county bore the $55 per day cost of housing the person, Modena said.
Now, most people brought into the jail see a magistrate within 24 hours because magistrates have increased their caseload, holding bond hearings at the jail six days a week instead of four.
Magistrates can’t set bail for “the seven deadly sins” including murder, rape and kidnapping.
Shurling described the new bond-setting system as a balancing act.
“You must consider the economic conditions of a community when you’re talking about a reasonable bond,” he said. “If people can’t make bond, they can’t get out and they’re housed at the taxpayers’ expense.”
Edwards said every effort is being made to keep the county from having to choose between paying to expand the jail and building a new courthouse.
A new wing at the jail opened in July 2007, ending a 20-year-old federal court order mandating that the county offer more bed space for inmates. That expansion added 269 beds.
Modena said several factors have increased the number of people in the Bibb County jail. He cited the closing of state mental facilities and a backlog in the state prison system picking up inmates after they’ve been convicted of a crime.
Tuesday, the jail housed 112 inmates awaiting a transfer to a state prison, detention center or diversion center, according to sheriff’s office records.
Besides reverting to the old bail bond list, Modena said he’s also considered the use of ankle monitors and has held discussions with probation officers to reduce the number of people behind bars.
“We’ve got to do something,” he said.
If a jail expansion is needed, Edwards said a local options sales tax increase or raising other taxes could be necessary.
“We don’t want to have to build another jail,” he said.
Edwards said the higher bail bonds were an easy way out, but not necessarily the right choice.
“You take the risk out of it,” he said. “But we need to make sure we reserve ample space for the bad folks who will hurt you.”
In most cases, the people benefiting from the lower bail bonds are charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, Nelson said.
But area residents are wary of lower bails and the possibility that repeat offenders are being released from jail.
“The repeat burglar who will just burglarize another house ... shouldn’t be able to get out in two days,” Hall said.
JoAnn Beitz, the Corbin Avenue Neighborhood Watch coordinator, said residents within her neighborhood are frustrated that they feel like they can’t keep anything in their cars or items in their yard, worrying that a person arrested for a crime in their community could soon be walking the street again.
“All people know is they want to come home and be safe,” she said.
Information from The Telegraph’s archives was included in this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.