DETROIT (WXYZ) - You'll be hard pressed to find a court busier than Wayne County's Third Circuit. More than 100,000 defendants will come through its doors every year, and to make sure they show up to face their charges, the court takes out a security policy, known as bond.
"It's to insure that the defendant is likely to appear for all court appearances and it also is to provide a safeguard for the community," said Wayne County Judge Timothy Kenny, who presides over the court's criminal division.
Bond is money defendants put up, either on their own, with the help of a family member, or through a bail bond company. Most often, defendants on bond are required to pay only about 10% of the total haul. As long as you show up for your court dates, you keep all of the money. If you don't, you're on the hook for everything.
But our investigation has found a broken bond system in Wayne County, allowing most accused criminals who skip court to walk free, without being pursued for the lion's share of their bond money.
"Why hasn't the court been pursuing collection of bond when somebody doesn't show up," asked Channel 7's Heather Catallo.
"I think it's been a resource issue," responded Kenny.
Kenny acknowledged to Action News that for decades, the court hasn't been doing what it should have: pursuing millions in bond money when defendants don't show for court.
"What kind of message is it sending to the community if that part isn't pursued, there is no consequence for them," asked Catallo.
"I think that the message that we want to send going forward is that we're going to make the effort," responded Kenny.
And in cash strapped Wayne County, where hundreds have been laid off and services have been slashed, just how much money could have been collected, but wasn't?
Records obtained by the Action News Investigators show a staggering figure: since 1986: nearly $65 million in potential forfeited bond the court failed to go after. That's not including money owed by bail bonds companies, surely millions more.
"Isn't this something that should have been pursued in the past," asked Catallo.
"Well, I would say yes," said Kenny. "it was money that was out there that could have been pursued..we are making an effort to rectify that particular problem."
Take what happened with Corey Deshawn Gaston. He was charged with kidnapping and raping a 10-year-old girl taken from a Detroit home in 2007. Given a $200,000 bond to ensure he would show up to court, Gaston vanished only four days before his trial was set to begin.
The bail bond company that put up his 10% bond was never notified by the court that Gaston had fled; and the court never went after the bond money it was owed. Three years later, Gaston is still a wanted man.
And what happened here is the norm: at Wayne County's Third Circuit, bond companies haven't been notified when their clients don't show up to court, meaning they're never told their clients need to be found. But that's changing now, as a direct result of our investigation.
"When it was brought to our attention, we felt that we needed to do something and we're taking corrective action," said Kenny.
The most serious defendants are hounded by the region's fugitive task force when they don't show in court, but plenty of other defendants are not. Bail bond agents contacted by Action News said that some criminal defendants view posting bond as merely a "cost of doing business.”
"They're the ones who absolutely know that when they get out, and they don't show up at court, that nobody will be out there searching for them," said Justin Butler, president of "You Walk Bail Bonds."
And it's not just happening at Wayne County's Third Circuit Court. Down the street at 36th District Court in Detroit, it's the same story: bail companies aren't told when a defendant's on the run, and bond money isn't pursued. The court's chief judge says they don't have enough people to go after it.
"It's not pursued, and 9 times out of 10, he or she is going to be arrested and we're going to see them again," said Chief Judge Marylin Atkins.
One defendant who wasn't pursued was 24-year-old Jason Gibson. Charged with stealing a vehicle and fleeing from police, he never showed up for his March 5th, 2010 hearing. The court didn't go after his bond money, the bail company never knew to look for him, and he never set foot in a court room again.
That was until about three months later, when he was charged with murdering Detroit Police Officer Brian Huff.
"Are you okay with the fact that the individual who's been arrested on a crime is not going to be forced to stand for that crime, until he commits another one," asked Butler. "And what is that new crime going to be? It might be a traffic stop, or it might be a homicide."
At 36th District Court, poor record keeping doesn't allow us to know just how much in forfeited bond has gone uncollected through the years, but it's a number that's certainly in the millions.
Court officials tell Action News that as a result of our investigation, for the first time the court's history, they'll now be sending out letters subpoenaing bond companies and family members when a defendant doesn't show up in court.
In other courts like Macomb County, officials say they didn't go after forfeited bond until 2006. Now bond collection has tripled. In fact, our cameras were there when one bond company delivered a $50,000 check to clerk's office when one of its clients fled the state.
In Oakland County, the court administrator told us they don't always pursue bail after a defendant fails to appear, but Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper has stepped up the county's efforts in recent years.
Meanwhile, for courts that are now promising major reforms, Justin Butler and others hope these changes aren't just temporary.
"You've got five, ten million dollars a year sitting out there in uncollected bonds," said Butler.
"You have warrants that are increasing every day. You have serious criminals that are being released on minor bonds, and it's a scary system out there," he said.
As a direct result of our reporting, the Third Circuit Court has begun holding show-cause hearings for people who fled instead of facing charges, and it's already getting results. One of the very first hearings was held back in January for a defendant charged with felonious assault and marijuana possession. The defendant didn't show up, so his bond was forfeited. When he learned that, he decided to turn himself in instead. He'll be spending the next 60 days in Wayne County Jail.
If you have a tip for the Action News Investigative Team, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (248) 827-9466.
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