Breaking down the bond process in Shelby Co.

Published: Dec. 16, 2022 at 10:32 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The call from the NAACP Memphis office to raise the bond for the suspect in a brutal golf course attack led Action News 5 to take a closer look at how the bond system works. 

Turns out, bond is set by judicial commissioners, the workhorses of the Shelby County criminal court system.

After 15-year-old Haley Reedy was shot and killed in September, and the man charged with reckless homicide in her killing got out of jail within 24 hours on a $10,000 bond, Haley’s parents, David and Brandy, were stunned.

“Whether he meant to or didn’t mean to, he killed my daughter,” David Reedy said in October. “My daughter doesn’t have a second chance. She doesn’t have a phone call or a chance to get bond.”

In the past week, the local NAACP chapter was shocked to learn the bond for 22-year-old Wesley Caldwell, the man who allegedly hit a man in the head with a golf club on Dec. 3, was just $5,000, even while the victim remained on a ventilator.

“You know, the bond was so low given the past history of the attacker,” NAACP President Van Turner said. “But they didn’t have his full criminal history from DeSoto County, and now they do. Perhaps it will be revisited.”

The Shelby County DA’s Office announced on Dec. 15 that it was taking a closer look into the incident at the NAACP’s request.

Bonds for those cases, and all others in the Shelby County General Sessions Criminal Courts, are decided by 10 judicial commissioners - attorneys who are appointed, not elected, to the job.

Judicial commissioners, also called magistrates, set bonds on crimes ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. They conduct first court appearances and handle video arraignments.

Judicial commissioners hold orders of protection and forfeiture hearings, issue search warrants and arrest warrants, and preside as special judges when the elected judge is not available.

Turner appointed many of these magistrates during his time as a Shelby County Commissioner.

When asked why judicial commissioners set bonds instead of the judges, Turner said, “Because there are so many cases that come through Shelby County, the judges would have to be on the bench 24/7.”

General Sessions Criminal Courts handle 100,000 cases a year, according to the General Sessions Court Clerk’s website.

The heavy volume is why Shelby County created the judicial commissioner program in 1998, starting out with three judicial commissioners.

Today, there are 10 full-time judicial commissioners with plans to expand.

“The judges work the 9 to 5 hours and the judicial commissioners work the evenings and overnight,” Turner said. “They’re a 24/7 office and so that’s why we have to have them.”

The 2021 Shelby County Judicial Commissioners Annual Report said “the judicial commissioners are an integral part of the justice system.” 

The commissioners work in the County Jail Annex and a Hearing Room on the second floor of the Walter L. Bailey Criminal Justice Center.

They work on a rotating schedule, with the Jail Annex manned 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

The Hearing Room operates Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until the dockets are cleared.

The annual report said a minimum of two judicial commissioners are on duty at any given time in a 24-hour period.

All of them are attorneys and some of them have been judges before.

They will be instrumental in the new bond court being developed in Shelby County with the goal to get low-level offenders out of jail sooner.

The program is expected to debut in February, and the number of judicial commissioners will be expanded to 14 to accommodate the increased workload.

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