No getting out of jail free
By Greg Martin -Staff Writer, ABH. 6/13/99
In the competitive and sometimes sleepless world of bail bonding, six Athens companies hold the keys to getting people out of jail.
Images of midnight jailhouse visits, sleeping during the day or traveling abroad to catch a fugitive who has skipped out of appearing in court are true, according to some of Athens' professional bond agents. However, bail-bond companies are more closely related to your average insurance company.
``This is basically an insurance company,'' said Ron Hamby, owner of Classic City Bonding, which he founded in 1984. ``You are ensuring the courts that the people you bond out will be there. That's the bottom line of the business.''
When a person is arrested and taken to the Clarke County Jail, a magistrate judge sets their bond. There are three ways to get released from jail on bond: presenting cash equal to the price of the bond, presenting property with a value and equity greater than the bond's value or contracting with a bonding agent to post a bond, according to Chief Jailer James Brown of the Clarke County Sheriff's Department.
For a bonding company to operate, Georgia law requires the sheriff to review the business and authorize the bonding agent to do business in the sheriff's county. Each company has a letter of credit from a bank that allows it to post bond up to that amount for inmates. Once that amount is reached, the company must come up with more assets or it can no longer bond people out of jail.
Although bail bonding is a business, Brown said he considers these companies as playing an important role in public service.
``There are six bonding companies in Clarke County that we work with,'' Brown said. ``They're all an essential part of our survival.''
If bonding companies didn't operate by bailing people out of jail, Brown said the enormous inmate population would necessitate many more tax dollars be spent on jail construction.
To bail people out, companies charge a non-refundable fee, typically based on the bond amount. State law restricts a bonding company to charging no more than 10 percent of the bond price as a fee to its client.
Although the company promises to pay the bond if one of its clients flees from justice, the court releases its claim on the company's money after he makes his final appearance in court.
Most people don't worry about bonding companies until they need them. Brown said he allows bail-bonding companies to advertise on two boards at the jail.
And you get more than one phone call.
``People think because of (what they see on) the television that they only get one phone call in jail,'' Brown said. ``We let them call as many people as they need to locally, given that that person has a cooperative attitude.''
Cliff Hamby Sr. has bonded people out of Clarke County jails for 26 years - 23 years as a professional bonding agent with Bulldog Bonding and now working for his son's company, Classic City Bonding. Cliff Hamby Sr. said while you can make a lot of money by bonding as many people as you can out of jail, you can also ruin your business that way.
He began as an agent for the now defunct Bulldog Bonding Company. He said after he and his mentor left, new owners increased the volume of clients but ultimately lost money on those who fled from the courts.
``They took everybody who could pay (the fee),'' Cliff Hamby Sr. said. ``You can't do that. Once some of those people hit the ground, they can fly.''
To weed out those who never intend to appear in court, he uses his not-so-secret weapon, wife Jewell Hamby - a.k.a. ``The Bonding Lady.''
Whenever she visits the jail, all you hear is, ``Hey Bonding Lady!'' Cliff Hamby Sr. said.
Jewell Hamby uses her skills as an interviewer to weed out people who have the potential to skip out on bond. She questions potential clients on their family, the number of years spent in the community, employment, past brushes with the law and any other detail that could reveal risk to Classic City.
John Elliot, owner of Aaron's Bonding, said risk is what bonding is all about.
``What you're trying to do is minimize risk,'' Elliot said. ``Basically, a bonding company is nothing more than a small insurance company. You're ensuring a certain event will occur. That event will be the appearance of the person we bond out of jail at their appointed court dates.''
Ron Hamby said his business provides a good living, but not a ticket to Easy Street.
``It's a livable profession, but not a business that you can get rich over,'' he said. ``I am blessed to make a living in this business. It's not as good now because of competition.''
Prior to the emergence of more competitors, Ron Hamby said he could expect 1,000 to 1,200 clients a year. Now, his business bonds out from 200 to 600 people in a year.
He said each bonding company in Athens could generate anywhere between $200,000 and $600,000 per year.
Revenue is critical to running a successful bail-bonding business, but so is the number of clients who skip out on bail.
In Georgia, the average skip rate for bail-bonding companies is 2 to 8 percent, according to Drew Hinkle, president of the Georgia Association of Bail Enforcement Agents.
Who are these people skipping out on bail and creating the possibility that the company will have to pay up on the bond? You might be surprised, Hinkle said.
``The average bail amount that people skip out on in the Atlanta metro area is $3,000,'' he said. ``Generally speaking, the higher the bond the lower risk of skipping.''
Hinkle said those charged with more serious crimes will often have better attorneys and will take their chances in court. Those facing lesser crimes may be intimidated by the system enough to flee, he said.
Fleeing from court isn't anything new in Athens, Elliot said.
``I wouldn't say it's a rare occurrence,'' he said.
When that happens, a ``bounty hunter'' - as they are sometimes called - can be hired by a bail-bonding company to track down and return skippers to jail.
Ron Hamby said he has done a lot of his own bail-enforcement work because of concerns about the legal liability if a bounty hunter acts inappropriately.
``About 5 to 6 percent of people skip out on us,'' he said. ``Our actual loss on people is about 1 percent.
``We don't use bail-enforcement agents at all. There have been a lot of problems with them in not being trained properly.''
Ron Hamby said he and Classic City employees would find out where bail jumpers are hiding and bring them back. If there is the threat of violence, he said he would hire an off-duty police officer or deputy to retrieve the skipper instead of hiring bounty hunters.
``It's been my experience that there are too many cowboys out there,'' Ron Hamby said.