House Bill 688, which went into effect June 21, was passed to improve the money issues faced by the Alabama court system. The three sections of the bill include raising court costs, implementing an appearance bond, and adding a bail bond court cost.
Civil filing fees will increase $45 for circuit and district courts, with the exception of child support. Small claims will increase to $15. Criminal court costs will increase to $40, with the exception of juvenile, and traffic case costs will increase to $26.
The appearance bond is a new fee that is paid up front.
“It’s a filing fee for the bond,” said Blount County Circuit Clerk Mike Criswell. “Somebody gets arrested, and if they want to make a bond, doesn’t matter if it’s a bail bondsman, property bond, or cash bond, there is a piece of a paper that is the bond, and it’s going to cost them $35 to file that bond.”
After attending court, if someone is found guilty or pleads guilty they will also have a bail bond court cost which is a 3.5 percent fee on the amount of the bond.
“Let’s say for instance, the bond was for a thousand dollars, which is a kind of run of the mill bond here in Blount County,” said Doug Sharp, owner of Sharp One Investigations and A.K.A Bail Bonds of Alabama. “At the end of the day, if they are found guilty or they plead guilty then there is going to be another $35, which is 3.5 percent of a thousand dollars, that’s going to be added to their fines and court costs.”
The amount of that additional fee can increase to a maximum of $450 in misdemeanor cases and $750 in felony cases.
However, if an individual’s 3.5 percent increase is less than $100 in misdemeanor cases or $150 in felony cases they will have to pay $100 or $150 regardless.
Despite the opinions of most of the bail bondsmen in the state, Sharp says he is not opposed to the bill.
“There’s a tremendous cost that goes into operating the court system in any state, and right now if they didn’t come up with additional revenue they were looking at making cuts in the court system personnel,” Sharp said. “The court system is already very behind and backlogged on cases. In Blount County, felony cases can take as long as two or two- and-ahalf years before they ever come to trial. The last thing we needed was for that process to slow down even more because of a lack of revenue and the lack of personnel operating it.”
Criswell says he has already been forced to conjure up ways to keep his staff of eight from decreasing to five.
“As of last year I was notified I was to lay off three of those eight,” Criswell said. “If we couldn’t find local funding they would be laid off, but we did manage to come up with temporary funding, so I still have all of those employees.”
Even though Sharp isn’t opposed to the bill, he still sees this as a burden on the citizens and his own wallet.
“Quite honestly, it’s hard enough to get people to be able to pay the bond amounts as it is,” Sharp said. “In addition, that means there is going to be more money that families have to come with to get their relatives out of jail, so that’s slowing down the process while their trying to gather up additional money.
The $35 fee in the bill is related directly to the person getting out of jail, which is good from a bail bonding standpoint,” he said. “Yet, if it doesn’t get paid within two days of the bond being written, the bail bondsman is held accountable for it and can suffer up to a $500 fine on any unpaid $35 fee.”
Sharp also says this bill will hinder those already struggling with court costs and push them even more into debt.
“It’s estimated in the state of Alabama that we already have nearly a half-a-billion dollars in uncollected fees in the court system as a whole,” he said. “If you’re looking at drastically increasing that amount going forward, it just makes it that much more difficult for them to get out from under this debt burden that they are going to be in.”