John McFadden, a Billings bail bondsman, has begun what has the makings of a campaign to reform the way muni court judge Mary Jane Knisely sets bail and other pre-trial conditions of release. Last November, McFadden first wrote a letter to the editor of the Billings Gazette criticizing pre-trial supervision as more or less a form of blackmail that encourages defendants to plead guilty in order to avoid or end the onerous fees involved. McFadden is equally critical of the fact that private companies are making substantial profit from the misery of these defendants, as well as what appears to be the “I’ll scratch your back” way Judge Knisely doles out the business to these companies.
Last week McFadden wrote another letter to the editor listing eight flaws in the way Billings’ municipal court operates, including:
- Ordering citizens to pay to be “supervised” by supervisors who have committed fraud (DV 05-1199).
- Collecting “bond” payments and then converting these “bonds” into “fines” without a hearing.
- Leaving citizens in jail for hours, days and even weeks after posting bond.
- Jailing minorities because they are unable to pay “supervision” fees while waiting for their day in court.
- Forcing citizens to submit to 24-hour unannounced searches and urine analysis before trial.
- Routinely employing individuals who are not elected to act in Judge Knisley’s stead, at taxpayers’ expense.
- Giving citizens no choice in determining from which company they must purchase court-ordered services.
- Responding with an adversarial attitude toward complaints.
McFadden’s letters have produced a vocal response in the newspaper’s comments section, and he is following up on his own website by asking for stories and comments from concerned citizens.
A few critics have questioned McFadden’s motives, suggesting he is bitter about something and is therefore attempting to strike back at the court. They may be right: many of the things McFadden criticizes (pre-trial supervision, time-pay bonds rather than secured bonds, etc.) probably do not help a bondsman’s bottom line. On the other hand, the problems McFadden identifies remain problems, regardless of his motives for speaking out.
How are things in your jurisdiction? Does your misdemeanor court routinely set bonds at 5-10 times the amount of the largest fine allowed by statute for the alleged crime? Are your misdemeanor bonds frequently higher than the bonds set in your felony courts? Are people accused of misdemeanors in your jurisdiction coerced into pleading guilty by onerous pre-trial “supervision” fees (for electronic monitoring, drug testing, etc)? Do the cost of those fees vary as much as 100% depending on which “supervision” company you’re assigned? Is Billings municipal court the source of the problems, or is this sort of thing pervasive statewide?