Officials with the city of Mobile say they’re making changes to a system that didn’t work. For the past several years municipal court was allowing people arrested on virtually any city offense to sign their own bond and get out of jail without paying any money.
We wanted to start by taking you back to a robbery scene three months ago when two men barged into the Cheese Cottage in Mobile, taking nearly $2,000 in cheese and wine. One of the men arrested was Robert Hawthorne. He’s no stranger to police.
“Because of our high definition camera system when the detective was assigned there was already knowledge of this individual,” said Cheese Cottage owner Kristi Barber. The most striking part about Robert Hawthorne’s record is how many times he’s been arrested. He was booked into Metro Jail more than 50 times in the last three years and able to sign his own bond on more than 25 offenses.
“[It’s] a classic example of us not knowing, they allowed that person to come in and go out, come in and go out, it would have been cheaper to put him up at the Battle House,” said City of Mobile Director of Courts and Senior Judicial advisor Judge Charlie Graddick. Graddick has been in the job roughly a year.
“Frankly how it was set up, was not set up in anybody’s interest they were allowing anyone arrested for any municipal offense, other than domestics or DUI, they were allowing anyone to sign their own bond,” said Graddick. Bail bondsmen say the problem came to a head about a year ago when people who signed their own bond didn’t go back to court.
“70-80 % of them is just municipal tickets is the ones we have the main problems on, in district they go to court on harder cases you’d be surprised, but these people with tickets don’t think they have to go to court and there’s just warrants and they’re just out there,” said bail bondsman Eric Williams with Bay Town Bonding. Graddick says he can’t pinpoint why the city started allowing suspects to sign their own bonds for free–saying one of the potential reasons was easing the burden on the jail and the cost for the city.
“I think it was tried to see if it would work and frankly it was not working,” said Graddick. In the last month, Graddick says the municipal court has begun requiring a cash component for more municipal offenses, sometimes allowing someone brought up on multiple charges to sign their own bond but then have a cash bond for at least one offense. Robert Hawthorne remains in Metro Jail for the time being. At the Cheese Cottage, sales are better along a stretch of St. Louis Street where there were virtually no businesses a year ago.
“I think word’s gotten out on the street that we have the community, we have the high def cameras so no regrets whatsoever,” said owner Kristi Barber. It appears fewer people are being allowed to sign their own bonds, according to a News 5 analysis of data from the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, the number of people signing their own bonds, after being arrested by Mobile Police, in April dropped more than two thirds from where it was in January. People we spoke with also describe the excessive use of “own recognizance bonds” as a public safety issue–adding more work for police to look for people who skipped court on relatively minor offenses.