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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ind. Courts - "Chance of getting bond reduction depends on the judge" in Monroe Circuit Courts

Laura Lane of the Bloomington Herald-Times has a very lengthy and interesting report today ($$) on the Monroe Circuit Courts. Unfortunately it is available only to subscribers and is too long to quote in full. Here are some quotes:

Get arrested for a significant crime, and chances are you will have to post bail to regain your freedom.

How much depends on the seriousness of the offense. And also on the judge assigned to your case.

As Monroe County’s four criminal court judges struggle to keep the local jail population down in accord with an agreement in a federal lawsuit alleging overcrowding, the issue of bond comes center stage. When it’s low, inmates have a better chance of paying the required 10 percent to a bail bondsman to buy their way out of the slammer. When the bail amount is high, people charged with crimes often sit for months awaiting their day in court.

One judge, Teresa Harper in Monroe Circuit Court 9, has a reputation in the justice system for being more likely to reduce bond than the other three judges who handle the county’s criminal court cases. Word apparently has spread; some inmates have inquired about having their cases assigned to Harper’s court. And when police crack a big case, detectives have been known to grumble when the defendants end up in Harper’s court.

While guidelines suggest how much bail should be set for specific charges, judges also use their experience and their discretion when establishing a person’s bail.

For example, Monroe County’s bail schedule calls for $20,000 surety bond and $500 cash for Class B felony crimes. A person can be released on a surety bond after posting 10 percent of the total to a bondsman to help guarantee the defendant appears in court. That’s the purpose of bond, to assure people charged with crimes show up for hearings, not to punish them. If they fail to appear, the judge can revoke their bond and put them in jail.

“We have to consider that establishing a bond that is more than what is required to make them appear in court is contrary to the law,” Harper said.

But sometimes, bail amounts don’t seem to add up. Sometimes, it’s unclear why some criminals catch a break — say a reduction in bond that might allow them to get out of jail — and others are left to languish behind bars until their cases are resolved. * * *

Indiana’s Circuit Court judges, who are elected by voters, come to the bench with different levels and kinds of experience. Monroe Circuit criminal court judge Marc Kellams, as well as Todd and Diekhoff, come from prosecution backgrounds. Kellams’ first legal job was as an intern in the Monroe County prosecutor’s office, and he then worked as a civil attorney. Todd was a prosecutor in the Air Force in the 1970s. Diekhoff worked as a deputy prosecutor from 1989 until she was elected judge in 2004. Diekhoff, more likely to increase the bail of a serious offender than to lower it, was the chief trial attorney for major felonies when she left the prosecutor’s office and donned a judicial robe.

Her experience may be anti-crime, but even Diekhoff lowers bond. Last Tuesday, she drastically reduced the bond of a 30-year-old woman charged with neglect in the death of her son. The charge is a class A felony, and the county bond schedule sets $50,000 as the standard bail for the offense.

But Jessica Merryman was being held on 10 times that amount, $500,000. The investigation into her son’s death was ongoing and a more serious charge against her was possible. Diekhoff previously had refused to lower Merryman’s bail, but agreed to after defense lawyer Ron Chapman argued his client had never been in trouble with the law and was not a flight risk.

Harper got her experience on the other side of the courtroom than her fellow criminal court judges. She was a defense lawyer who worked a decade for the Indiana Public Defenders Office and was its chief deputy when she left in 1995. She served as editor of the Indiana Public Defender Council’s “Defender” publication from 1995 to 1998 and was a training director for the National Legal Aid Defender association from 1999 until 2004.

When Harper was sworn in as judge in 2007 after receiving 53 percent of the vote, she vowed “to be the best judge I can be.” She was assigned civil court duties, and heard 30 percent of the divorces filed, one-fourth of the protective orders and half of the small claims cases. When a new criminal court was established in 2008, Harper transferred to it.

“I can’t wait,” she said when the change to criminal court was announced. “I’m really excited about getting back to the subject matter of my old professional life.”

On Friday, she reiterated her love for the job, and said she does not believe she is more lenient than her counterparts in criminal court. Asked if she thinks there is a perception she is not tough enough, she said, “No, I don’t think so. I do what I’ve been elected to do: look at the facts that come before me and apply the law well.” Indiana’s Code of Judicial Conduct limits her ability to publicly comment on decisions from her court. The 40-page code demands that judges “uphold and promote the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

It says judges should expect to be the subject of public scrutiny, that they shall perform their duties without bias and should not be swayed by “public clamor or fear of criticism.”

And it clearly states judges cannot make public statements that might affect a pending case, although there is a caveat allowing them to explain court procedures and also to respond to “allegations in the media or elsewhere concerning the judge’s conduct in a matter.” The cases cited in this story from Harper’s court are either pending or still eligible for legal appeals to a higher court.
Jail ruling calls for balance

Todd, with more than three decades on the bench, is the Monroe County court system’s presiding judge. The judicial brethren are a close-knit group, and they do not criticize each other, at least not publicly.

But he acknowledged that with experience and criminal court exposure come more refined and competent judicial decisions. “Experience is always a valuable commodity,” Todd said. “Exposure to different circumstances over a broad range of different cases and different individuals is helpful in making these kinds of decisions. You have background to draw from.”

When it comes to deciding what bail, if any, a person should be held on, Todd uses tools other than his experience to help him make judgment calls. First, he considers the nature and gravity of the charged offense, a defendant’s criminal history, employment, community ties, addictions, character, mental health and other traits. In the end, though, bail decisions sometimes involve assessing information as well as rolling the dice.

And Monroe County’s judges are under new and strict constraints to keep the jail population down. Under settlement terms of a federal lawsuit in which inmates claimed unconstitutional conditions at the overcrowded jail, a population cap has been set by a federal judge. When the number of inmates gets close to the limit, prisoners either have to be let out of jail or transferred to another one, which can be expensive.

Todd says judges are expected to strike a balance between keeping dangerous people behind bars while making sure inmates they release appear in court and commit no more crimes. “You face situations where you learn to trust the person in front of you or to have suspicions,” Todd said. “There are some things that I do today that are substantially different from when I started on the bench because of what I have learned along the way.”

The task is more difficult now than it was just a few years ago. Todd cited statistics showing that in June 2007, the Monroe County Jail had 19 inmates facing Class A felonies, the most serious level of criminal offense besides murder. In August 2009, the number was 43. There also were more Class B felons behind bars in 2009 than in 2007.

“We have 70 percent more of the worst kinds of offenders in jail and fewer minor felonies, which I think shows we are letting less serious offenders out of the jail,” Todd said. “There are people who think the jail is full of first-time pot smokers, and I can assure you that is not the case.”

He is not comfortable releasing any inmate he feels could be a threat to public safety. “If there’s somebody that needs to be kept in jail, I am going to keep them in jail. Public safety will always be my first priority, and you cannot make bail recommendations and disregard that,” he said. “You get as much information as you can, you make an assessment and you try to make the right decision overall. You hope you are right more than you are wrong. I think history would show we have done a pretty good job here.”

Harper said if a defendant standing before her requesting lower bond has no criminal record, is employed, supporting a family and genuinely remorseful, those things matter in her decision-making process.

Sometimes, she said, you have to believe the person accused of the crime and give him or her a break. Sometimes, she said, it makes sense to put someone on home detention and require substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration. She also said if there are facts that warrant going higher on the bond schedule, she will set bail higher than called for in the guidelines.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 10, 2010 11:14 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts