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Tennessee Sheriff Launches ‘Busted Bingo’ To Round Up People With Warrants

“Kiss your boyfriend goodbye.”

Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson, host of Busted Bingo

Tennessee Sheriff Launches ‘Busted Bingo’ To Round Up People With Warrants

“Kiss your boyfriend goodbye.”

The men in black are coming for you.”

So says the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department in Tennessee, which recently announced a game to decide who to round up and jail for outstanding warrants. Entitled Busted Bingo, the game has the look and feel of a typical televised lottery. But instead of money or a tropical vacation, victors are rewarded with an “all-inclusive stay at the Sullivan County Correctional Facility.”

Busted Bingo is hosted by Sheriff Wayne Anderson and posted on YouTube. In episode one, a man with a thick country accent explains the game’s purpose, as an upbeat country theme song blares in the background: simply put, the department has “too many warrants.” In order to pick and choose which ones to enforce, the department created a board with 24 numbered mugshots and Anderson selects a corresponding numbered ball from a spinning wheel. The lucky person’s photograph, birth date, alleged offense, and home address are then plastered on the screen for all to see.

“Girl, you might as well cowgirl up,” Anderson tells the first winner. “Come on in. Kiss your boyfriend goodbye. Give your mama a big hug. ‘Cause if you don’t, we’re gonna come and get ya.”

According to the Herald Courierthe sheriff’s department has over 17,000 warrants — 7,572 of which are active. Anderson considers Busted Bingo an “innovative way” to inform the public and fulfill his statutory duty to serve the warrants.

The first episode of Busted Bingo has amassed more than 38,800 views, and garnered some positive audience feedback. But the game has also sparked outrage among many viewers who consider it unprofessional, reductive, and harmful.

“People do bad things, but making light of their humanity due to those usually small infractions, is far worse,” said one critic on YouTube. “Go arrest who you need to, to keep the community safe, but this kind of trivialization of American justice is just f***ing gross,” said another.

But Anderson is undeterred by the negative comments. “I know some people didn’t like it,” he said. “No matter what you do in this job, you’re always going to have critics. I think it’s going to work out really good.”

In fact, there is no end in sight for the game. The sheriff’s department intends to serve all 24 warrants and then start from scratch.

Man Declared “Factually Innocent” of Murder is Granted a Full Pardon

The pardon vote removes any “residual stain” on his record.

Man Declared “Factually Innocent” of Murder is Granted a Full Pardon

The pardon vote removes any “residual stain” on his record.

A Nevada man who spent 21 years in prison has been pardoned over the objections of Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson.

Fred Steese was convicted in 1995 of the 1992 murder of Gerard Soules, a former trapeze artist who performed a poodle act at the Circus Circus Casino in Las Vegas. Steese, who had briefly been Soules’ assistant and lover, was in Idaho when the murder occurred. But prosecutors argued his look-alike brother was actually in Idaho while Fred Steese killed Soules in Las Vegas.

Steese and his brother, Robert, had been estranged for years and prosecutors never brought Robert Steese into the courtroom or showed jurors a picture of him. Nonetheless, after deliberating for two days, the jury convicted Steese.

The two prosecutors who secured the conviction against Steese are now judges.

In 2012, federal public defenders filed motions to throw out the convictions after discovering evidence in the prosecutors’ files that Steese hadn’t been in Nevada during the days before the crime. They also found proof in those files that Robert Steese had been in Texas at the time of the murder, making it impossible for him to have impersonated his brother in Idaho.

That evidence was never handed over to the defense before the original trial. It led a judge to declare Steese “factually innocent,” by ordering the first ever “Order of Actual Innocence” in Clark County.

“Given everything additional that we now know,” Judge Elissa Cadish noted in her ruling, “I am finding that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with that evidence.”

But the Clark County District Attorney’s Office continued to insist Steese was guilty and charged him with Soules’ murder again. This led to what Vanity Fair has called “an arcane plea deal,” known as an “Alford plea,” whereby Steese pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to the time he’d already served, while continuing to maintain his innocence. By accepting this deal, Steece remained a convicted felon, and prosecutors did not have to concede they had erred in prosecuting an innocent man. Steece also lost the right to sue the state for wrongful conviction.

“Fred Steese’s case exposed the rot in the system that robbed him of two decades of his life,” wrote Megan Rose in an earlier Vanity Fair story. “Yet even then prosecutors worked to keep it hidden, forcing him into an almost incomprehensible choice: risk freedom to fight for an uncertain exoneration that might take years, or cop to a crime he didn’t commit and walk away.”

Fortunately, Steese’s time as a convicted felon ended earlier this month when the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners granted him a full pardon. The Pardon Commission is composed of the seven members of the Nevada Supreme Court, Governor Brian Sandoval and Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Sandoval and all seven members of the Supreme Court voted in favor of the pardon.“Let there be no residual stain on his record,” Nevada Supreme Court Justice Lidia Stiglich stated in supporting the pardon.

Laxalt’s was the sole vote against the pardon. He insisted he did so because the district attorney, Steve Wolfson, believed the pardon to be “absolutely unwarranted.”

Kathy Nasrey, Soules’ sister, told Commissioners at the hearing that she believed Steese was innocent, and deserved to be pardoned. “I am simply here to right a wrong and to restore the life of Mr. Frederick Steese, knowing my brother would want this done.”

Nasrey told Commissioners she had long believed Steese to be guilty and had even written an angry letter after learning that Judge Cadish ruled him “factually innocent.” But, over time, she decided that prosecutors had misled her and that Steese had not committed the murder. She also admitted to struggling with the knowledge that her brother’s actual killer was likely free and would never be held responsible.

Although no one has now officially been found to be responsible for Soules’ death, the Clark County District Attorney’s Office says it considers the murder of Gerald Soules to be a closed case.

Steese struggled to find work after he was released from prison because he had a criminal record, and was homeless for a time. He was eventually hired as a truck driver by a company willing to employ convicted felons.

“I’m a new man now,” Steese said in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the pardon was made official. “It’s lifted a black cloud over me.”

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Ditching the Bondsman is Only Part of the Battle for Bail Reform

The five states that have done away with commercial bond outlets still struggle with inequity when it comes to cash bail.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Ditching the Bondsman is Only Part of the Battle for Bail Reform

The five states that have done away with commercial bond outlets still struggle with inequity when it comes to cash bail.

Of the criminal justice system’s many characters, the bounty hunter is perhaps the most cartoonish. Tasked with chasing down and capturing those who don’t — or can’t — pay back their debt to commercial bail outfits, this Old West relic has spawned multiple popular TV series. It’s easy to see why commercial bail and bounty hunters are emblematic of the ills of the cash bail system, which have increasingly come under fire from those pushing for criminal justice reform.

While financial incentives questionably drive many parts of the criminal justice system, the perversity of profiting from incarceration is laid bare in the bond industry, in which people who haven’t yet been charged with a crime pay a nonrefundable fee for their freedom. Five states in the U.S. have done away with commercial bail bonding, either by statute or by changing the way courts collect cash bail: Illinois, Oregon, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin. Getting rid of for-profit bail shops may be an important step toward amending the many facets of the bail system that work against the low-income people who are most likely to be locked up. But organizers in states without commercial bonds are struggling with many of the same issues as those in states where the practice is still legal.

“What we have is a court system that is itself profiting off of the bail program, which creates a perverse incentive for the government,” says Sharlyn Grace, co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which pays bond for those in Cook County jail who are unable to bail themselves out.

While Illinois made bounty hunting illegal in 1963, Grace says “deposit bonds” paid to the court to bail someone out of jail still echo the commercial system. For example, if a judge sets bail at $100,000, a defendant must pay 10 percent to the court to get out of jail. Of that ten percent, the court clerk keeps $1,000 whether or not the person shows up for their court hearing. In states where they are allowed to operate, bail bondsmen do the same thing.

“There’s no large insurance companies in the background making profits, but the fact is that the court is deriving part of its budget from collecting money from people pretrial, and people are forced to pay or sit in jail,” Grace tells In Justice Today.

In February, an Illinois lawmaker introduced legislation that would do away with cash bail for any person charged with a nonviolent offense. The proposal, which ultimately failed, faced significant pushback from county court clerks, according to Grace. They argued that the courts relied on the funds from deposit bonds to function. “[Getting rid of commercial bonds] doesn’t eliminate the fact that someone’s collecting money, and those entities may protect their interests,” says Grace.

In Wisconsin, Nino Rodriguez, an organizer with Free The 350 Bail Fund, struggles with many of the same issues faced by bail fund organizers in states that still have commercial bail. In states that have abolished for-profit bail bonding, Rodriguez says that “bail amounts tend to be lower … but that doesn’t mean they’re affordable.”

Rodriguez and his fellow organizers estimate that 1 out of every 5 people in Dane County Jail are there only because of unpaid money bail. (Nationally, three out of every five people in jail are there because of their inability to pay their way out.) Though the fund has only existed since August 2017 and has bailed out 3 people, Rodriguez has already witnessed firsthand the challenges facing those who are unable to pay their bail. Judges and commissioners who assign bail are mandated by Wisconsin state statute to consider a range of factors, including a defendant’s ability to pay. Rodriguez and his collaborators have recently begun court-watching to see if the process is unfolding as it should during a defendant’s initial appearance in court.

“I don’t recall seeing a serious inquiry [by the court] into ability to pay,” says Rodriguez.

Dane County’s justice system is also a stark example of the racial disparities found in local jails throughout the country — particularly when it comes to who winds up sitting in jail because they are unable to pay their bail. A 2015 study found that black Madison residents were over 10 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts, even though they make up just 7 percent of the city’s population.

Amanda Liepold, a member of the Madison, Wisconsin National Lawyers Guild chapter who works with Free The 350 Bail Fund, echoed Rodriguez on this point. “Don’t assume that simply because you’re going to abolish bail bondsmen that your bail programs are now going to be just and free of bias and disparity,” she says as a word of warning to states that might consider following Wisconsin’s path.

Recently, Clatsop County, Oregon District Attorney Josh Marquis boasted on Twitter that his state was the first in the country “to abolish cash bail.” Marquis inaccurately conflated the elimination of commercial bond companies with doing away entirely with the state’s cash bail system — two vastly different reforms. While the bald profiteering of bail outlets makes them an obvious target for the reform movement, what’s happening on the ground in states like Wisconsin and Illinois illustrate that eliminating commercial bond is only a partial fix. (Of the states without commercial bail, Oregon appears to be the only one without a community bail fund movement.)

“There are still definitely injustices in the system even though we don’t have bondsmen [in Wisconsin],” says Liepold. “There are still folks sitting in jail who shouldn’t be.”

Thanks to Burke Butler.

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