Originally created 02/25/02

Bonds let detainees avoid jail

AIKEN - Morley Booker had to make a choice.

The Aiken 18-year-old could either serve his 30-day sentence for shoplifting or get out of jail now and face the charges later.

As he stood in an orange jump suit in the small, rectangular courtroom next to the Aiken County Detention Center, Mr. Booker was given a little dose of reality.

"You know what kind of conditions are back there," said the judge sitting behind the wooden desk. "I don't know if you want to spend 30 days or not."

Mr. Booker told the judge he wanted to serve his time, making him one of the about 230 people crammed into a space that should hold 117.

After he was taken back to the aging facility, however, he chose to go home.

Aiken County Magistrate Judge Donna Williamson allowed Mr. Booker to go on a personal recognizance bond.

Most of the people who appear before Judge Williamson are released on such bonds.

A person is entitled to a free pass if he shows he can be trusted to appear for his court date. The chief justice of South Carolina demands it, Judge Williamson said.

If so many are released, why does the Aiken County jail remain at double its capacity?

Judge Williamson said overcrowding could be lessened if the county had a night judge to conduct bond hearings during the graveyard shift. That won't happen until a permanent day judge is installed, though.

That position has been the matter of debate among the senatorial delegation of Aiken County for more than a year, with no resolution in sight.

Judge Williamson laughs when people suggest overcrowding starts with her. She was on duty a few weeks ago when the jail's population soared to more than 300.

"I'm not here to punish them by making them stay in jail," Judge Williamson said, adding that she cannot release everyone on bond.

A part-time judge from Wagener who took the job because she wanted to help people, Judge Williamson tries her best not to let an arrest ruin someone's life.

On Tuesday, Chris Gonzales, 19, of Aiken, appeared before the judge. He had been arrested in the parking lot of the Aiken Mall on a charge of shoplifting a pair of shoes and was facing a charge for not stopping when police ordered him to. He said the police didn't have to chase him because he stopped after he realized what he was doing.

The judge asked whether he had called anyone. He said he had.

"My girlfriend heard where I am but she is kind of in the hospital right now having a baby," Mr. Gonzales said.

The judge perked up before ordering Mr. Gonzales to pay bond.

"Your first day of fatherhood - a bad way to start out," she said.

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com.


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