There is an ongoing debate in Columbus involving elected officials, the police department and judges about the role bond amounts should play in the city’s pursuit of deterring crime.
Mayor Robert Smith and Police Chief Tony Carleton told The Dispatch that the two municipal judges in Columbus should set higher bonds for people accused of violent crimes and certain felonies in order to send a message that the city is “tough on crime.” Municipal judge Marc Amos, though, told The Dispatch that is not the function of a bond, nor will he adjust bonds to satisfy a political agenda.
“This is a legal issue, not a political one,” Amos said. “It’s wrong to ask a judge to set a bond that would violate his duties under the law just so you can appear ‘tough on crime.'”
Last Tuesday, the city council asked Amos to come before it and explain a $7,500 bond he set for a man accused of striking a woman with his vehicle and then leaving the scene. The woman died in the incident.
The mayor said the woman’s family contacted city officials regarding the bond, which the family believed was too low. It was not the first time citizens had complained about bond amounts, according to the mayor.
“When people call and complain about an issue going on in the city, then it’s my job to address those issues,” Smith said. “We’re not trying to manipulate or dictate to the court system. We would hope in the future, with felony crimes like drive-bys and murders, bonds would be more consistent and higher … I think they will be more considerate, but (if they aren’t) so be it.”
A bond’s purpose
Lowndes County Circuit Court handles felony cases. However, municipal judges often set bond amounts for felony cases before they move to circuit court.
A bond’s primary purpose is to ensure that a person accused of a crime answers the charges. A bond may not be used as a form of punishment, according to Matthew Steffey, a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law.
“With the exception of certain capital and other murder cases, every accused (person) has a right to reasonable bail,” Steffey said.
“Questioning municipal judges in this manner — especially about specific, pending cases — undermines the central role of judges as neutral arbiters in our system,” Steffey added.
Amos said that when he sets a bond, he considers factors ranging from the charge, whether the suspect is a “flight risk,” whether the suspect’s being out of jail presents a danger to the public, and criminal history. He said he also considers a suspect’s ability to pay the bond, since higher amounts could affect the defendant and defendant’s family in a variety of ways — whether it’s incarcerating defendants so long it costs them their jobs or it causes defendants’ family crippling financial hardship.
“It has to be high enough that the suspect will be motivated to come to court or that somebody will be motivated to get him there,” Amos said. “But you can’t ignore the fact that a person’s bail amount affects lives, and it’s not just the lives of the accused.”
Mostly, Amos said he depends on the investigators testifying at bond hearings to tell him whether a suspect is a flight risk or a public danger.
For example, in the hit and run case, police investigators indicated the suspect, Terrance McBride, was not a flight risk or a danger, therefore he set a low bond. McBride does have a criminal history, including two felony cocaine convictions that resulted in prison time. McBride got out of prison in 2006, Amos said, and had neither committed a felony nor shown a “propensity to commit” a violent crime since. So Amos said that didn’t factor heavily in McBride’s bond.
“Judges have discretion,” he said. “That’s what I can tell you. That’s what I deemed appropriate. Could I have set it at $10,000 or $12,500 and that still be appropriate? Sure. But my duty is to set the bond as low as possible but where it ensures the suspect comes to court.”
Discussion behind closed doors
After the city council meeting last week, there was a lengthy executive session in which Amos and Nicole Clinkscales, the second municipal judge, met with council members and the mayor.
Both Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box and Smith confirmed to The Dispatch that they discussed the job performances of Amos and Clinkscales, who were both appointed to their positions by the council in 2010. No official action was taken.
However, both Box and Smith confirmed the conversation centered on the mayor’s and Carleton’s growing dissatisfaction with how low Amos and Clinkscales had set bonds recently in certain felony cases.
Smith and Carleton said bonds in municipal court are often “inconsistent” and don’t fit the charge.
The McBride bond was cited. So was another case, in which Clinkscales set a $10,000 bond for a suspect accused in a drive-by shooting, according to Smith. He said people were calling his office complaining about that bond.
Clinkscales did not return calls or messages from The Dispatch.
Smith said he never threatened to recommend reprimanding or firing the judges, and as far as he is concerned, their jobs are not in jeopardy.
“At no time were they called in there to be chastised,” he said of the executive session.
Box echoed the mayor’s account of events, adding he didn’t feel either judge had done anything worthy of reprimand or termination.
“My personal feeling is that through separation of powers, we can’t tell them how to set bonds,” Box said. “I’d like to see higher bonds, but Judge Amos made a pretty clear case as to why he sets them like he does. That said, I think Chief Carleton should continue to ask for higher bonds.”
Getting tough on crime
Smith said he respected Amos as a judge and attorney, but disagrees with his philosophy on bonds. The city has responded to recent violent crime activity — namely a shooting at Sim Scott Park in March that injured four people — with a series of community meetings promising to be “pro-active” in law enforcement. Court bonds, Smith said, are part of that process.
“He’s the lawyer and the judge, and I’m not,” Smith said. “But I disagree with him on that issue. The lower bonds are not going to help reduce crime. Until (the defendants) go to court or are convicted, look at the damage they can do.
“If you set the bond high enough, and the suspect can still get out, then fine,” he added. “I think that sends the message, though, that we’re not tolerating crime anymore.”
Carleton — who also noted he respected the judges’ credentials and their positions — said he felt it somewhat unfair for Amos to frame his bond-setting philosophy so strongly around police officer testimony.
“We’re not attorneys. We’re not judges,” he said. “When you ask our opinion about a bond, it’s kind of intimidating because our officers think ‘Isn’t that (the judge’s) job?’ We didn’t go to school for that. We went to school to learn how to lock people up.”
A move to Justice Court?
Carleton said his biggest problem with municipal court is that he often sees instances where the bonds don’t fit the charge. To that end, he said he’d like to see the city take all of its felony bond hearings to justice court, where he said bonds are typically higher and more consistent.
Justice court provides much the same function for the county as municipal court does for the city — adjudicating misdemeanors and setting felony bonds — and the city can legally use justice court for bond setting since it’s part of Lowndes County.
As it stands today, Carleton said, the city only uses justice court for bond hearings if the municipal court judges are indisposed. But he said he is “brainstorming” ways to make the court system more efficient.
“It works better to separate felonies and misdemeanors,” Carleton said. “So, for me, it would work much easier to have all the misdemeanors at city court and all felony bonds go through either justice court or circuit court.”
While he agrees with Amos that bonds shouldn’t always be so cost prohibitive the suspect can’t possibly be released, Carleton said Columbus municipal court ranks, according to his observation, well below average in bond amounts compared to peer court systems in northeast Mississippi. That creates several instances of rearrests, he said, which a higher bond amount might prevent.
“It’s frustrating when an officer arrests someone, a bond is set and they have to arrest that same person again a week later.,” the chief said. “That type of bond-setting is negative to the officers’ thinking.”
Smith has, so far, resisted Carleton’s argument for moving all felony bonds to justice court. He told the Dispatch on Friday he did not want to see a situation where city police actively bypassed municipal court.
However, Smith agreed with Carleton’s point that justice court produces clearer, more effective results with bonds than do Amos and Clinkscales.
“In justice court, the bonds are higher, and I believe it’s because those judges are elected by the people, whereas city judges are appointed,” Smith said.
Justice court justice Ron Cooke said he uses basically the same method as Amos in determining bond amounts. While he will consider financial standing in some cases, Cooke said it didn’t weigh as heavily in violent crimes.
Cooke also said public sentiment for a bond to be set high or low also factored in, though he said he wasn’t “swayed” by it. In McBride’s case, though, he said he would have set the bond higher because of the affidavit and the strong public desire for a high bond.
“To me, $7,500 was too low,” he said.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.