By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
In late 2000, Allison and Jackson joined Cox, Tullock and a handful of other local bondsmen to form the Missouri Professional Bail Bond Association. Group members say they were fed up with what they perceived to be unfair enforcement of bond forfeitures (money paid by bondsmen when one of their clients misses a court date) by St. Louis judges. Allison soon became president of the association and Virgil Lee Jackson its vice president.
It was Allison who suggested the group retain a lobbyist named Steve Carroll to help draft and pass legislation to, as Allison explains, "make the industry more professional."
It was at Carroll's St. Louis office on a December afternoon in 2003 that Jackson first presented the idea of letting felons become bondsmen if they'd been clean for fifteen years.
"Lee got up on his high horse," Cox remembers, "and he started saying, 'Well, we shouldn't keep punishing people.' The majority of people at that meeting agreed with him. I got outvoted. I said, 'Well, it's a democratic society, put it in there.'"
"We do live in a society based upon Judeo-Christian ethics that says everyone deserves a second chance," says Carroll. "And the Department of Insurance makes the decisions on a case-by-case basis anyway."
Says Allison: "We didn't feel like you should have to pay for your crime longer than fifteen years. As long as it's not a heinous crime, there's no reason you shouldn't be allowed to get a license. Everybody gets a second chance somewhere, or at least they should."
Or, as Representative Bob Behnen told the Columbia Missourian: "Laws are made all the time to benefit one person. That's not uncommon at all."
Cox says at the time (in 2003) he was one of only a few members of the 137-person bail bond association who argued against the so-called Lee Clause. "I looked straight over at him [Jackson] and I said, 'I'm going to be honest with you guys, I'm opposed to it,'" Cox recalls. "I don't think anybody should write bonds if they've got a felony conviction. I don't give a shit if it's been one year or twenty years."
Later he adds, "Looking back over it — that might have had a little to do with the animosity Lee was having with me."
We're pretty much the social workers of the night," says Paul Berry, a St. Charles-based bondsman. "I've had people call me in the middle of night, call at two in morning, because they have to get out of jail because their mom is in the hospital and she has four months to live."
Like Berry, those who laud the work done by bail bondsmen point out that they are often the only ones who can get the accused out of jail on short notice, at odd hours and often in dire situations.
Some states, however, have done away with professional bondsmen completely. Illinois is one of those four states. "I love it. I love it a lot," Mel Weith, a lieutenant colonel with the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, says of his state's bondsman-free system, which has been in place since he joined the Illinois force 32 years ago. "I wouldn't want the headaches of having outsiders coming in."
Depending on whom you ask, bondsmen are a blessing or a bane.
"My old boss, he told me when I was starting off that any successful bail bondsman is generally one step out of an indictment, so be careful when you work with them," says Joe Hogan, a St. Louis defense attorney.
"I've been doing this for fifteen years and I have not encountered any problems with any bonding agency," reports Greg Wittner, another St. Louis defense lawyer. "But I choose my associations very carefully."
St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Edward Sweeney, who presided over the city's forfeiture court last year, says he frequently gives bondsmen leniency when it comes to meeting forfeiture deadlines, chiefly because they are more efficient at finding fugitives than the justice system.
"It's not costing the taxpayers any money if the bondsman has to go to New York and bring the guy back," Sweeney explains. "If the bond is forfeited, the bondsman pays that money [to the court], but the suspect is still out there on a warrant. Then you're relying on a combination of luck and the likelihood that someone who broke the law once will break it again."
Despite their helpful role in the U.S. justice system, unflattering portrayals of their trade in films like Midnight Run and Jackie Brown have left bondsmen battling a mainstream reputation that might be characterized as sleazy at best, or downright criminal at worst.
"They're in a business where every one of their clients is accused of a crime, just like defense attorneys," Sweeney says. "And just like defense attorneys, there's a tendency to associate the clientele with the person who is serving that clientele."
"Some of these guys, the way they do business is suspect to me," says Keith Morgan, who, as St. Louis County's bonding supervisor, approves which bondsmen are allowed to operate in the county courts and jails. "There are always some good ones and always some guys who are going to bend and twist the system to work in their favor."