Bond amounts set on case-by-case basis
Bond amounts set for defendants in Douglas County can seem random. One defendant charged with a DUI may receive a $250 bond while another may get a $500 bond.
That’s because according to Kansas statute, the decision is left entirely up to the judge, said Douglas County Chief District Judge Robert Fairchild. Judges must base their decision on a number of factors, balancing the defendant’s needs with the safety of the community, but there are no official guidelines for which crimes come with what bond amounts.
Bond amounts can vary significantly for the same crimes from person to person and situation to situation. Currently there are three defendants, all charged with first-degree murder, in the Douglas County Jail on $1 million bonds: Archie Robinson, Dustin Walker and Sarah Gonzalez McLinn. Ronald Eugene Heskett, also charged with first-degree murder, is booked on a $500,000 bond. Larry Hopkins, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the alleged mercy killing of his wife, had a bond of $150,000.
At the Douglas County District Court, Judge Pro Tem James George sets the initial bond amount when the accused first appears for charging. In accordance with Kansas statute, George must take into consideration the following factors:
• Nature and circumstances of the crime charged.
• The “weight” or significance of evidence against the defendant.
• The defendant’s family ties and length of residence in the community.
• The defendant’s likelihood to commit crimes or threaten victims while on release.
• Whether the defendant was on probation or parole at the time of the alleged crime.
• The defendant’s employment and financial resources.
• The defendant’s character and mental condition.
• The defendant’s criminal history and record of failures to appear at court proceedings.
Fairchild said that bonds are set to give incentive for a released inmate to attend all of his or her court proceedings. If he posts bail and complies, the defendant will be given back the full amount of the bond. If he doesn’t return to court, a warrant is typically issued and the bond can be revoked.
“When we see people who have been arrested, what we have before us is a person presumed innocent,” Fairchild said. “We have to have a fair bond that guarantees their appearance in court.”
If a person uses a bonding agency, they pay the bond company a non-refundable 10 percent of the amount and the agency will get them released from jail. The agency is then held liable for the rest of the bond amount if the defendant doesn’t appear in court.
Judges have a difficult time predicting what might happen if certain bond amounts are set, Fairchild said.
Sometimes a defendant with an extraordinarily high bond that the defendant cannot make will be acquitted, and the innocent person will have been in jail for months without reason. Likewise, a defendant with a low bond could post bail and commit another crime. It’s these occasions when the court discovers that perhaps the amount wasn’t high enough, Fairchild said.
“Our crystal balls are real fuzzy,” Fairchild said. “We can all be wrong about what we predict is likely to happen.”
Criminal defense attorney Sarah Swain, who has represented clients with up to $1 million bonds, said that because bond amounts are entirely within the discretion of the court, the system is not fair.
“At the time a bond is determined, the accused has a presumption of innocence,” Swain said. “Unfortunately, staggering bond amounts of $100,000 or more seem to reflect a line of thinking that defendants are often presumed guilty until proven innocent.”
But fellow Lawrence criminal defense attorney John Frydman said that in general, bond amounts are reasonable.
“They’re pretty consistent; I’ve had no complaint about bonds,” Frydman said. “I think judges want defendants to post bonds, they just want to ensure the defendant appears when ordered.”