Jail Bait

Getting sprung from the slammer has never been easier, and the life of a Miami bail bondsman has never been tougher

"So much money was flowing into Miami then," Sheppard recalls. "Cash was everywhere." But compared to the generally peaceable hometown kids who had fallen into the marijuana business because Miami was on the shipping lanes, the Sheppards' new clients were different. The cocaine traffickers weren't usually from Miami and if they were arrested and released on bond, they were more likely to leave town than show up for trial. That left the bonding agent liable for the entire $50,000 or $500,000 or whatever the amount of the bond. This was assuming that the bondsman wasn't able to catch the suspect and put him back in jail within 35 days, which he probably couldn't because the suspect was hidden away somewhere in central or South America. And not only did the new drug traffickers carry firearms, they didn't hesitate to use them. So while the money-making potential was great for the 100 or so bondsmen in the Miami of the mid-Eighties, they learned to be more suspicious judges of character and to make sure the collateral was good on the bonds they wrote.

By the late Eighties cocaine traffic through Miami was thinning because of stepped-up interdiction by the U.S. government. That wasn't a big worry for the bail bond industry; Miami had always been a good crime town, a frontier town, a refuge for outlaws from all over the world. But by the late Eighties, bondsmen were worrying about a program called Pretrial Services. Every year thousands of people were getting out of jail free under the county-funded pretrial release program, which allows selected felony defendants to leave jail without having to post bond.

Pretrial release was created in 1966 in Dade County to assist people charged with nonviolent felonies who couldn't afford to post bond. Since then Pretrial Services has expanded into a $2.7 million-per-year program that operates principally to relieve jail overcrowding. Financial hardship is no longer a consideration; if Pretrial Services workers can verify the detainee's address and determine that his or her ties to the community are stable enough, chances of pretrial release are good, even if the inmate has a string of prior felony arrests and convictions. Like independent bondsmen, Pretrial Services is supposed to keep track of each suspect to ensure that he or she shows up for all scheduled court hearings. However, without financial incentive to appear in court, many accepted for pretrial release disappear. Statistics computed by the Dade County Bail Bond Association show 28 percent of inmates released to Pretrial Services in 1992 failed to appear at trial. (The Metro-Dade Corrections Department, which administers the program, says the true figure is closer to seven percent.) The forfeiture rate for those bonded out by private bondsmen, according to Ed Sheppard, ranges from five to twelve percent, with most caught and returned to jail within 35 days.

The first six months of this year, 10,508 people were released to Pretrial Services; a total of 19,150 were released during all of 1992. Meanwhile, the Metro-Dade Police Department recorded fewer felony arrests: 24,178 arrests for the first six months of 1993 compared to 29,267 at the same time last year, and 34,552 during the same period in 1989. Bondsmen agree there's just less bond business to go around. And because only the most incorrigible felons or those charged with the worst crimes are not accepted into pretrial release, the bondsmen are left with so-called bad bonds -- difficult cases, higher risks.

Yet the bondsman population in Dade County has swelled in recent years to about 220 today. No one is quite sure why more people are opting to scrap for less business. One explanation is that many established bondsmen have been responding to the shortage by hiring "executing agents" (other bondsmen) to bring in more clients on commission. But those agents subsequently go into business for themselves and in turn hire other executing agents. Many bondsmen just want to be their own boss and find their profession to be one of the few in which they can be independent. Even if work is scarce, bonds are generally set higher in Dade than most Florida counties, so a single agent doesn't have to work a lot to get by, especially if he doesn't rent an office and operates out of his car, which many do even though a bondsman is required by Florida law to have an office open eight hours a day during the week.

Ed Sheppard and Sharla Demsky, who don't employ executing agents, find the phones in their two-person office ringing less and less. It wouldn't be quite so bad, they say, if the hustlers weren't illegally siphoning off much of the business that would otherwise come to them and to other established agents. Hustlers, who are usually licensed bondsmen, go where the prospective bonds are A to the jail or to the bond hearings on the fifth floor of the Metro Justice Building on NW Twelfth Street. Just as lawyers are prohibited from attempting to pick up business where the most vulnerable prospective clients are -- such as at hospitals or disaster scenes -- so bondsmen are restricted from doing the same around concentrations of prisoners. But there are ways to get around that. The bond hustle has a hundred variations, some clearly illegal, others merely questionable.

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