URBANA - From a quality-of-life perspective, Champaign County officials would just as soon John Lofton never came to this county.
But given that his brief time here almost two years ago recently made the county $157,500 richer, it's hard to get too upset.
Prosecutors believe the 37-year-old Chicago man came to Rantoul in May 2001 to intercept about 42 pounds of cannabis that had been shipped there from San Bernardino County, Calif.
Task Force X investigators were notified of the arriving shipment by California authorities, and after Lofton picked up the cannabis from a home on Steffler Street on May 10, 2001, they arrested him with the packaged cannabis in the back of his Lincoln Navigator.
The next day, Lofton was charged with unlawful possession with intent to deliver cannabis, a Class X offense, which in his case would have meant a sentence of mandatory life in prison because he has two prior Class X convictions out of Cook County.
Judge John Kennedy set his bond at $5 million on May 11, 2001, and about two weeks later agreed to reduce it to $2 million. Lofton then posted 10 percent, or $200,000 cash, and was released from custody.
For the next two years, on 19 different occasions, Lofton appeared in Champaign County court for hearings in his case. Most of those were pretrial conference calls at which his case was merely continued until the next month.
In February of this year, his attorney, Jeffrey Vollen of Chicago, told Judge J.G. Townsend that Lofton was in the custody of federal authorities in Wisconsin.
When Lofton failed to show up at the Feb. 26 pretrial, Assistant State's Attorney Steve Ziegler asked the judge to forfeit Lofton's bond and issue a warrant for his arrest. On that day, Townsend set a hearing on that request for April 2 and, after a brief delay because the courthouse was evacuated for a bomb threat, Townsend did indeed forfeit Lofton's bond.
(Being in custody in another jurisdiction is not an excuse for missing a court date. The law states if you've willfully absented yourself from a court hearing, you're subject to bond for- feiture, Townsend explained.)
Townsend allowed a request by Vollen that he be paid $22,500 out of the posted bond for the almost year's worth of work he had done on Lofton's behalf.
Minus the 10 percent fee that the circuit clerk routinely retains for the cost of processing bonds, that meant there was $157,500 left.
?That's nice,? county co-administrator Deb Busey said.
Busey explained that the money funnels through a revenue line item in the state's attorney's budget but is eventally transferred to the currently strapped general corporate fund.
?At least it begins to make up for shortfalls from state shared revenues, which include income tax, use tax, corporate personal property replacement tax. They will not come in at what we had anticipated,? she said.
Circuit Clerk Linda Frank said the forfeiture is the largest she can recall in her 12 years in office.
Forfeitures don't happen very often. In calendar year 2002, there were a total of 3,999 misdemeanor and felony cases filed. For the fiscal year closest to that - December 2001 through November 2002 - there were 172 cases where bond was forfeited. That's about 4 percent of the criminal cases.
And the amount of bond forfeited in all those cases was $100,027, or about $581 per case on the average, Frank said - a far cry from John Lofton's $200,000.
When a person posts bond - 10 percent in cash of the amount set by a judge - Frank's office holds the money and invests it until the case is concluded. At that time, the posted bond is almost always used to satisfy court costs and fines.
Defendants can also post real estate or stocks and bonds as bond, but that almost never happens. Frank said she and her staff could recall only one time during her tenure that property was put up as an assurance a person would return to court.
Among the court costs typically levied are fees for the local anti-crime fund (for example, Crimestoppers), circuit clerk's automation and document storage funds, and state's attorney, sheriff, court security, and violent crime victims funds. If a client has had a public defender appointed, he may have to pay something for that lawyer's service, and if a defendant receives probation, he can expect to pay a monthly fee for being supervised.
If there's any bond money left after all those costs are paid, it gets refunded to the person who posted the bond.
Judges set bond based on a number of factors set out by the Illinois Legislature.
?Statutorily, (bond) is to ensure appearance, to make sure there's no threat to the public. Those are the two main ones,? said Judge Ann Einhorn, who, as the judge most often in arraignment court, sets the majority of bonds.
Other factors judges consider are the person's ties to the community, whether he or she has full-time employment and the nature of the crime.
Crimes of violence almost always get higher bonds than property crimes, Einhorn said. And while out-of-town drug dealers don't necessarily always get the highest bonds, Einhorn said the judge has to look at the level of the offense and the potential penalty. If a person is convicted and a prison sentence is mandated, the incentive to return to court may not be as great for that defendant.
Defense attorney Tom Bruno of Urbana, who coincidentally tried unsuccessfully earlier this month to get a $100,000 bond for Lofton's co-defendant lowered, complained that judges use bond as a ?way to force a prepayment for fine and costs? instead of as a device to ensure a person's continued appearance.
?The inability of a local person to make a cash bond, and therefore have to stay in jail, should be measured against what would happen if they fail to appear for court. Many of these people don't have the resources to leave the city limits. If they fail to appear, it would only result in them getting picked up at a later date,? he observed.
Assistant State's Attorney Duke Harris, the prosecutor assigned to Lofton's case, said defense attorneys make Bruno's ?prepayment? argument all the time.
?Bond is set by the judiciary. All we have (as prosecutors) is a recommendation, the same as the defense. With jail overcrowding, the judiciary has to find a middle ground. Not everybody that rolls through is locked up. There are a substantial number of cases where defendants are released on recognizance (no cash required),? Harris said.
?Bond is not supposed to be penal in nature. But you don't have to sit through many pretrial conferences to see how many don't appear. If everybody appeared, it would be a perfect world, but people reoffend,? he said.
Harris was none too anxious to see Lofton's bond forfeited, preferring instead to continue the case until Lofton might be finished with any sentence he's serving in Wisconsin and have him tried here.
That's because with a conviction, street value fines are taken from the bond and divided - as spelled out by statute - among various agencies, including the police that investigated the crime and a juvenile drug education fund, Harris said. Those police agencies can use that money for more drug interdiction, including the purchase of equipment for use in drug investigations.
Harris noted that now that Lofton's bond has been forfeited, he can also be formally charged with violating his bail bond.
Harris explained that the charge is one class of felony lower than the crime for which he jumped bond. In Lofton's case, that would be a Class 1 felony and, if convicted, the sentence of four to 15 years would run consecutive to the conviction for the original charge. But Harris said he wouldn't have much to gain if Lofton is convicted in the drug case and sentenced to life in prison.
Harris said he intends to pursue Lofton's prosecution whenever Lofton is released from custody in Wisconsin.
You can reach Mary Schenk at (217) 351-5313 or via e-mail at email@example.com.