Tuesday, November 04, 2008

In Starkville, Mississippi, Bondsmen See Less Business

The life of a bail bondsman isn't always easy.

The phone rings in the middle of the night and on the other end of the line is the voice of a prisoner -- or that prisoner's loved one -- who needs to get bailed out of jail.

Most, if not all, Starkville area bail bondsmen are used to getting those late night phone calls. So, as they've done so many times before, they head into the night to bail out yet another person.

Lately, local bondsmen have received fewer and fewer of those late night phone calls, and many say their businesses are suffering.

Since the city of Starkville contracted this June to house prisoners in Clay County jail when the Oktibbeha County jail is full, some bondsmen have seen business with city prisoners drop 50 percent to 75 percent.

As part of the city's contract with North Atlantic Extradition Services, which operates out of Clay County jail, the Starkville Police Department is guaranteed 15 extra beds each night at the West Point facility, at a cost of $35 per bed.

Because so many Starkville prisoners regularly get transported to Clay County, especially during circuit court sessions when the Oktibbeha County jail is full, local bail bond agents are losing out to their colleagues in West Point.

"Since they've done this, it's probably cut bonding by 50 percent," said Cynthia Hunt of Hunt Bonding.

Hunt wrote about 20 bonds per week for Starkville prisoners prior to the city's agreement with NAES, she said.

"Now I might get five," she said.

The availability of bondsmen in the West Point area is part of the reason Starkville bondsmen are missing out on the business.

When a suspect is arrested by the Starkville Police Department, he or she gets one phone call. Some suspects make their call at the city police station, while others make calls from Clay County jail.

Because West Point has its fair share of bonding agents, many prisoners who make calls from Clay County jail contact bondsmen already in the area instead of those in Starkville.

"If I was sitting in jail and it would take 30 minutes for a bondsman to get here, then there is a local bondsman I can call and it's going to take three minutes for them to get here, I'm going to call the local bondsman," said R.H Gilmer of A Bail Bondsman in Starkville.

Pat Quinn of Leigh's Bail Bonds in West Point, who deals regularly with Clay County jail, said business hasn't significantly picked up since Starkville started sending more of its prisoners to West Point.

"Actually, there hasn't been an increase in business," Quinn said. "It's been pretty steady."

The city's agreement with NAES only applies to prisoners picked up by the Starkville Police Department. The situation is a bit different with prisoners who are arrested by the Sheriff's Department or state agencies, such as Mississippi Highway Patrol.

"If a bail bondsman comes up here and said 'I want to get out Joe Blow,' and he's in Lowndes or Clay County, they'll start the bonding process here and we'll go pick him up and bring him back," said Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Department Deputy Chief George Carrithers. "We require all our bonds on (county) inmates to be made in Oktibbeha County."

Despite the conflict among local bail bondsmen, Starkville police Lt. Bill Lott said the concerns are unfounded. Lott said the agreement with NAES allows for more criminals to be locked up because, prior to the contract, Starkville police were allowing some offenders to remain free and only arrested the most violent criminals.

Now that more people are being put in jail, Lott said local bondsmen should have even more business, especially considering many prisoners make their one phone call before they're transported to Clay County.

"They get their phone call when they're here, so they have the opportunity to call a bondsman right here and then," Lott said. "If they can't get a bondsman here before the booking process is complete, they're going to West Point. So it would behoove them to call a local bondsman."

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