They were bail bondsmen. You couldn't miss them.
Now their old stomping ground has been evacuated or liberated, depending on your perspective. A recent order issued by Judges Richard McMonagle and Larry A. Jones is tacked to the wall near where the bondsmen used to be, along with a sign: No loitering by order of the court.
The judges and the Sheriff's Department say the action was long overdue, that court employees were tired of the bondsmen's antics. Their frequent squabbling over clients sometimes snowballed into physical confrontations and created what the judges characterized as "an atmo-sphere of violence, hostility, and tension" in the building. The bondsmen, not surprisingly, deny the charge. They feel their rights have been violated, and at least two bonding companies are considering legal action. They want to know why lawyers and concessionaires can conduct business in the Justice Center but they can't.
"I think there are more fights between lawyers than bondsmen," says Larry Zukerman, attorney for ABC Bail Bonds and Atlas Bonding. "What're they going to do? Throw out the lawyers?"
The bondsmen blame a handful of their brethren for causing all the problems, including an unfortunate 1997 incident in which one bondsman pepper-sprayed his competition, causing sections of the Justice Center to be evacuated and the entire building to close for an hour. Instead of disciplining the perpetrators some of whom are rumored to be convicted felons the judges have banished all bondsmen.
"It's an eerie feeling," says John Rocco of Atlas Bonding. "You're always waiting for a deputy to come up and ask you why you're there."
Not an overly sensitive bunch, bondsmen are more worried about the potential loss of business than any perceived violation of their rights. Moreover, the order hasn't kept troublemakers out of the center, according to Jeff Goldstein, vice president of ABC Bail Bonds. He says they've been spotted lurking around the cafeteria, poised to pounce on other people's clients. Other bondsmen have taken to passing out their business cards on street corners near the Justice Center, "like prostitutes," according to one court staffer.
The order ousting the bondsmen intersects with a larger effort to overhaul the entire bond system. In a July 15, 1998 letter to his fellow judges, Common Pleas Judge Timothy McGinty suggested restructuring the system to reduce the role bondsmen play.
To get out of jail now, most people need the services of a bondsman, who will post their bond for a handsome fee usually about 10 percent of the bond. If the defendant fails to show for his court date, the bondsman risks losing the entire amount of the bond. According to figures compiled by the clerk's office, Common Pleas Court issued judgments to collect on just 17 percent of the bonds put up by bonding agencies this year, compared to 28 percent of the bonds paid directly to the court, and a whopping 39 percent of personal bonds. In other words, defendants who used bondsmen had the highest rate of returning to court.
But McGinty seems just as concerned about financial matters as judicial ones. He stresses that the current system has proven to be more profitable for bonding companies than the court, which often does not collect fees from the companies on failed bonds. McGinty, who declined to comment for this story, suggested in his letter that defendants pay 10 or 15 percent of their bonds directly to the clerk's office. In theory, this will provide a greater incentive for them to return to court, in which case they can recover the entire amount.
But the court also wins if they don't show in which case, the court keeps all the money.
This week Common Pleas judges serving on the criminal rules committee will vote on a move in McGinty's direction. The proposal would require the clerk's office to notify all defendants of fourth- and fifth-degree felonies that they can post 10 percent of their bonds directly with the clerk's office, instead of going through bondsmen. Zukerman says his clients oppose such a change, which would shift the burden of finding delinquent defendants to the county a job it just hasn't done well historically, he says, compared to the bond agencies.
Judge Janet Burnside, who chairs the committee, says the rule change would provide more options for defendants as well as a financial incentive for them to return to court. It is not, she insists, an effort to eliminate the bondsmen. "I don't think I've met any judges interested in doing away with bondsmen," she says. "They provide a very valuable service."
Still, her colleagues McMonagle and Jones have publicly criticized the bondsmen and taken punitive action against them. And in his letter, McGinty casts them in a highly unflattering light.
"As a court we should also consider establishing regulations regarding who can serve as bondsmen and agents to solicit business and to capture fugitives," McGinty wrote. "Now we see convicted felons operating out of the courthouse, taking maximum advantage of vulnerable families and defendants while providing little service to the court and the community."
The prevailing image of bail bondsmen isn't fair to the majority of people in the profession, says Bob Harned, who heads the Professional Surety Bail Agents of Ohio, an association of bondsmen. The fifty-member group is backing a bill that will be introduced in the state legislature, requiring all bond agents to be licensed through the Department of Insurance.
In the meantime, bondsmen like Goldstein will continue to stand up for their right to be in the Justice Center.
"I can think of a hundred reasons why I should be in the building," he says. "We're like a free information center, and I know people appreciate us. They should pay us for being in there."