Complaints about leniency in setting bail for those charged with crimes are long-standing.
Law enforcement officials want people they arrest, particularly for serious charges and particularly those people who've been arrested before, to stay in jail.
But each case that comes before a judge is different. Judges have discretion, within the bounds of the law and court administration rules, to determine whether bail will be granted and what amount of money, if any, should be required for release.
Some members of Hilton Head Island's Town Council and the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office say they aren't happy with the performance of Beaufort Judge Ned Tupper. Hilton Head contracts with the city of Beaufort to have the city's municipal judges set bail for people arrested on Hilton Head. That spares Hilton Head's municipal judge from having to drive back and forth to Beaufort, the site of the county jail, twice a day for bond hearings.
Their concerns have been relayed to Tupper through assistant town manager Greg DeLoach, but DeLoach's description of Tupper's response says a lot:
"He understands the complaint, but like any magistrate or municipal judge, is given discretion to set bond depending on any number of circumstances, including the severity of the crime. And like any judge, (he) thinks it's unfortunate that someone is released and commits a crime days later. But that doesn't mean the judge has done anything inappropriate or improper."
A bail hearing is held for two reasons: to determine whether a person is a danger to the community and to make sure a defendant shows up for trial. We must remember that everyone is presumed innocent until proved guilty.
The key to whether someone's bail is handled appropriately is information.
Does the judge have the information he or she needs to determine whether bail should be granted and what that amount should be?
Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone has worked to make sure that's the case.
Stone gets assistant solicitors on the "front line of crime" with an on-call system. Assistant solicitors attend bond hearings with information they need to make a case to the judge setting bond.
Stone also has created a prosecution team to target career criminals. Speedy trials and successful prosecutions get career criminals off the streets and into the state prison system.
And he has added to his team a crime analyst trained by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division. The analyst works to get information about defendants to prosecutors before the early morning bond hearings.
If there's more to be done to improve this part of the process, let's do it.
Judges should take into account whether someone is out on bail when they've been charged with another crime. They should take into account their prior criminal record.
As Stone has said, you don't just look at the charge a defendant faces when making a case for bail, you look at who that defendant is.
That also points to the case-by-case nature of the bail-setting process and the necessity for judicial discretion. One size doesn't fit all, nor should it.
Arrest isn't conviction, and judicial discretion is an important part of the checks and balances in our judicial system.