Jail Bait

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

Bondsmen will wait around with their cellular phones and beepers, perhaps wearing the county ID card all bondsmen have, until the sister of a prisoner asks them for help, or they'll offer their services to the mother of an inmate who has been denied pretrial release. Several bondsmen always show up for the bond hearings held twice a day during the week at which judges set bond on new arrestees. Even though most bondsmen attend bond hearings only when a client requests it, or when they have a specific problem to resolve with court officials, the same faces appear at the hearings with a suspicious regularity. "Oh, you're not supposed to be here unless you've got a client here," explains one of those faces. "And I do."

Jonathon Shorthouse, a hulking blond bondsman with a wild glint in his gray eyes, says he comes to the bond hearings "to do my homework." Sometimes, he explains, he'll discover one of his forfeitures -- a person for whom he put up bond who didn't come to court -- has been rearrested. Sometimes that person will be released to Pretrial Services, and Shorthouse will have to track him down. Those kinds of discoveries, of course, don't happen every day, but Shorthouse says he tries to attend as many bond hearings as he can so he'll be ready when they do.

Bond hearings can be a rich opportunity for soliciting. A bondsman can write down the name of an inmate denied pretrial release at the hearing, then walk across the street to the jail, ask to interview that prisoner, and in the process illegally offer to bond him out or simply let the inmate ask for help. Bondsmen often interview prisoners before posting bond to ascertain if they're worth the risk; that's perfectly legal, though approaching the prisoner first is not. Usually it's impossible to prove one way or the other.

Many bondsmen consider it necessary to use direct-sell tactics of some sort to establish themselves in a cutthroat market. Others advocate building a business the slower, traditional, way A by joining clubs to make contacts, doing community service, meeting attorneys, calling friends. It may seem strange, bondsmen say, but even the most upstanding acquaintances eventually yield business referrals. "Business is not good anywhere in Dade County because of pretrial release, but that doesn't mean I'm going to break the law," says Flo Clein, who started in the trade eight years ago. Her husband Joe, a veteran Miami bondsman, left the business to her and his brother when he died almost four years ago. A cordial, energetic woman with curly brown hair, Clein works out of a comfortable wood-paneled office on NW Seventh Avenue under a highway overpass on the southern edge of Overtown. "I'm going to have to make other contacts or go out of business," she continues. "You have to get out there and work; join the Kiwanis Club, the Lions Club. It takes years. People who hustle want it now. Not everyone can make $100,000 their first year [a good income for an established bondsman with overhead], but if you go to the jail and the bond hearings and hustle, you can make a lot more than if you didn't."

In less than three years, Jim Viola had developed a substantial clientele by working long hours at the Dade County jail and courthouse; his critics contend that he was hustling, but he says he built his business by writing every bond he could, including those more cautious bondsmen wouldn't have touched. Cultivating a clientele -- repeat customers -- is the key to success, bondsmen say; most of the people who are in jail, especially those with higher bonds, have been in before and will be in again.

Viola, 32, came to Miami five years ago from New Jersey to open a nightclub. He took up bail bonds after the club closed. Although he looked more like a clean-cut bartender than the scruffy image commonly held of a bondsman, Viola discovered he had a talent for the business. People liked him, even peers who didn't approve of his methods. He made a decent, though losing, showing last November when he ran for president of the county bail bond association.

But those long hours at the jail and courthouse were a frequent point of contention; Viola maintained he was doing nothing illegal and that the other bondsmen were upset because he was doing more business than they were. "The more established companies don't want a new guy coming in," Viola says. "They want to knock me out of business. This soliciting charge is the only thing they have to try to screw me over."

"He tells us everyone is jealous of him because he runs his business differently," Sheppard retorts. "Well, he breaks the law. It's against Florida statutes to loiter or solicit anywhere prisoners are confined. He and his people tend to drum up their business that way. There's a core group of maybe a dozen that continue to do that, and it's gotten worse probably in the last year."

Another bondsman, who doesn't want his name used, says he's never complained about Viola but nevertheless is blunt in his estimation: "Jim's the best at hustling. You can't beat him. Common knowledge. I know I've lost bonds to him. [The county bail bond association officers] were trying to get him out because he was hurting their pocket. It hurts everybody."

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