Some say the bail system is broken. Here’s what we found

SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — A city fed up. Lawlessness is running rampant in Memphis, and many blame the bail system for making it worse.

One crime victim believes it’s part of the reason the man who carjacked her got out and committed crime.

“I had stopped by the store to get my mom something to drink,” Chasity Beecher said.

She was at a gas station in Frayser when she saw a man with a gun.

“It was big, black with a big wood handle on it. They call it a Draco,” Beecher said. “He was like, B, get out of the car.”

He aimed it at her and her young nieces. She handed over the car and called police.

“I can remember everything about the day so vividly,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep for first 48 hours. I stayed up. If I closed my eyes, I see this man with a gun in my face.”

Beecher lived in constant fear and only found some relief when police made an arrest.

Exactly two years later on the day she was set to testify, she found out Malik Pigram pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of attempted carjacking. According to court documents we found, he received eight years probation with conditions like job training, random drug screenings and 300 hours of community service.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Beecher said. “He’ll get out again, and he’ll do something else.”

She was right. In April, police say Pigram shot at a car. Then in August, they say he broke into Buster’s Liquor store. Officers say they caught him running from the scene with a gun.

In custody, court records state pretrial services did an assessment claiming he wasn’t on probation even though he was.

They noted he was a “threat to public safety,” but he wasn’t flagged for his “reputation, character or mental condition.”

Despite police reports we uncovered through the Tennessee Records Act claim his mother has been in “fear of her son’s temper,” and his father noted “paranoid schizophrenia runs in the family.”

It’s unclear if that information was looked at. What we do know is that a judicial commissioner set his bond at $35,000 for both cases.

His probation was later revoked, and he’s now being held without bond.

Pigram’s cases went through a new system.

Last year, Shelby County launched a bail hearing room within 201 Poplar to ensure defendants get a hearing within 72 hours of the arrest.

It also allows their financial situation to factor in to prevent defendants from getting stuck in jail simply because they’re poor.

A defendant would be released on their own recognizance, meaning released without paying anything, when there’s no compelling evidence they’re a flight risk or a public safety threat.

To make it work, pretrial services would interview each defendant. They would rely on their answers and background checks and turn over their findings to a judicial commissioner, appointed by the Shelby County Commission, who would then set the amount.

A tale of two bails

WREG Investigators pulled bail setting forms at random to get a better idea of how the process works.

One case we found involved Maurice Yarborough Carter. He is accused of carjacking a food delivery driver downtown last summer.

He was flagged as a public safety risk, and it was noted he didn’t show up to court five times, and had three felonies and 20 misdemeanor convictions.

We requested every police report he’s listed in, and what we found coincides with what’s listed on the bail setting form.

His bond was set at $100,000 dollars.

Justin Roberts was arrested last February after being accused of asking a woman for money and continuing to grope her. While setting his bail, it was noted he had a record not showing up to court and had a “violent behavior history.”

He was flagged for his reputation, character and mental condition.

We found several dozen reports that go into more detail. They state he’s been on police radar since he was a teen. One mentions possible ties to a gang. He’s been accused of multiple thefts, robberies and assaults.

His financial condition was also taken into consideration. His bail was set at $10,000 dollars.

Roberts got out. In May, he was arrested again. Court records state he accosted children, robbed a man and then committed another armed robbery. He punched that victim “in the face knocking him unconscious.”

This time, his bail was set at $100,000. He remains behind bars.

Memphis Shelby Crime Commission President Bill Gibbons said per state law, certain factors must be taken into account when setting bail like the nature of the offense, reputation and employment.

“Basically, it’s those factors that need to be considered. On one end of the extreme, the bail cannot be punitive in nature, so high as to be punitive. On the other hand, it cannot be based on simply what they can afford. Affordability is not one of the factors set forth in state law,” Gibbons said.

How bail works and what improvements could be made

General Sessions Judge Bill Anderson oversees the judicial commissioners. He didn’t get get back to our multiple emails regarding our request for an interview and a closer look at the bail hearing room.

He and the lead judicial commissioner, however, went in front of the county commission in September.

They explained that, instead of a bail company just putting up the money, they can impose conditions when defendants are released on recognizance. It helps them stay out of trouble and continue to provide for their families.

“I impose conditions. I impose curfews. I impose mental health assessments,” Judge Anderson told the commission.

They handed over hundreds of pages of data indicating the new system saw a slight decrease in people getting arrested again while out on bond. They say the average bail amount for violent offenses also increased and for non-violent offenses, it decreased.

The county commission is expected to get an annual update on the bail hearing room next month.

“I think we are now complying with state law in a better way than we were before,” lead Judicial Commissioner John Marshall said.

What they didn’t bring up though, were the cases called into question, like a man accused of opening fire when he was caught breaking into cars getting out on a $50,000 bond, or how a man accused of having a stolen gun when he stole two cars and tried to take a third was released with no bond.

There was even more criticism in November, when a teen murder suspect was released without bond.

Judge Anderson was reprimanded last week for saying he “detests” the bail bond system in the commission meeting. He told the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct he follows the law regardless of his personal views.

“They aren’t taking a lot of time. They are just setting the bonds, and it’s appropriate for some people who get arrested, we need to get them out, but for some people it’s not,” Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Christopher Craft said.

He believes a judicial commissioner can’t vet a defendant as thoroughly as a judge.

“There’s not any way they can do that, and also, they’re not elected. They’re appointed by the county commission. There’s nothing like an elected judge who’s responsible for the people making a decision,” Judge Craft said.

State lawmakers agree. They passed a law that gives only judges — not judicial commissioners — the authority to set a bond for defendants in class A and B felonies.

Leadership in Nashville also wants to give judges more authority to deny bail for more violent offenses, and two local Republican lawmakers are proposing a bill that would remove financial conditions from consideration.

“Where I think the system could improve is that judicial commissioners need to be putting more weight on the criminal history of the defendant,” Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said. “What needs to be cleared up is that D.A.’s don’t set bail.”

DA Mulroy said his office only makes recommendations. What he can do, when it comes to certain violent crimes, is ask that public safety gets proper weight, and if the defendant is released, that they get some kind of monitoring.

“And if they are re-arrested, we are going to immediately and always move to ask to revoke the bond,” he said.

The DA’s office says it’s also requesting the man who carjacked Beecher get prison time now instead of probation.

Who’s to say they won’t slap him on the wrist again?” she said.

“Do you think the system is broken,” WREG asked.

“Yes. Yes. It doesn’t work for the victims,” Beecher said.

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