Critics of a relatively new municipal court plan that releases low-level offenders without bond pending adjudication say it has done nothing but increase the rate of no-shows in court and can lead to more crime.

The program, which releases low-level offenders on personal recognizance, is designed to prevent holding defendants in jail only because they don’t have enough money to pay municipal court bonds ranging from $500 to $1,000, Court Administrator Nathan Emmorey said.

“The big driver behind it was when I looked at this I was seeing people because of their lack of resources spending more time in jail because they couldn’t pay a bond then they would’ve if they’d been able to plead to the case and say ‘hey, I’m guilty’ the moment they came in,” Emmorey said. “These are — all the charges in our court are misdemeanors — and these are the lowest of the misdemeanors. So, we’re talking about crimes that typically don’t have a victim. We’re not talking about crimes of violence.”

City Attorney Ricardo Woods explained the program is designed not to penalize poverty.

“… Mobile took a very proactive approach early on to say we’re not going to penalize poverty because ultimately, in this country, it is not a crime to be poor,” Woods said. “You have to be very intentional about not penalizing poverty and that’s what Nathan has done with the reforms. Even with our prosecutors, we make sure that we’re looking at guidelines for not putting people in jail for very low-level offenses, especially prior to being put in front of a judge for a trial.”

To qualify for personal recognizance, Emmorey said, a defendant can’t have another case pending in municipal, district or circuit court.

“If you’ve got a whole bunch of charges and you come in, you’re going to be held and brought before a judge or magistrate and they will assign a bond, or determine whatever they think should happen to you,” he said. “So, there are a variety of safeguards to put in place.”

Chris McNeil, owner of Outlaw Bail Bonds, said municipal court judges and magistrates were releasing everyone under this program without regard for who qualified and who didn’t.

Emmorey acknowledged initially all defendants were being released on personal recognizance by mistake, but new training for clerks has remedied that situation.

McNeil said he understands not wanting to put people in jail for minor charges, but he argues the municipal court’s plan doesn’t work because it’s resulted in the largest failure-to-appear rate in any of the courts. McNeil said without the involvement of a bonding company, defendants are simply not showing up for court.

Emmorey said the failure-to-appear rate is about the same now as it was before the program went into full effect in January.

“I did a very unscientific look at it,” he said. “I took two days from the past where they had bonds, two days from the current where they were releasing people on personal recognizance, and the rates were about the same. I mean, it ranges from about 10 [percent] and 19 percent. It’s the same range for both.”

Further, Emmorey said bonding companies don’t aggressively pursue defendants out on municipal court bonds because, at $500 to $1,000, they aren’t worth enough money.

McNeil denied this, saying he has to pay for every bond forfeiture if he doesn’t bring a defendant in. He said he spends two or three nights a week pursuing bonds from municipal court.

“We couldn’t operate if we didn’t,” he said. “It’s the bread and butter of our business.”

McNeil said his forfeiture is less than 2 percent.

Jonathan Phillips of Bail Out Bonding Co. said they are aggressive regardless of the bond amount when a defendant fails to appear in court.

“I have gone after people with murder warrants in order to clear a speeding ticket forfeiture,” he wrote in an email message. “We go after the small bonds more often because they miss the most.”

Emmorey said it’s true bonding companies do get charged for forfeitures, assuming forfeitures are actually recorded and not appealed to circuit court.

“The whole system was built up on forfeitures not actually being forfeited, because if they were properly forfeited they’d be out of business,” Emmorey said. “We’re working to properly forfeit according to the law and make sure we’ve got all our ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’s crossed as far as how we do that, and that we’re fair to the bondsmen as well as we’re fair to the defendants.”

As for personal recognizance, if a defendant doesn’t show up for court on a specified day, a warrant is issued, Emmorey said. If the defendant is subsequently detained, then they would have to go through the bond process, Emmorey said.

“You’d be surprised by the number of people who get rolled up in a traffic stop,” he said. “Are we actively pursuing the warrants? No. Do we have many, many warrants coming through? Yes.”