SEATTLE - In several Western Washington counties, suspected felons are being released from jail before they've been seen by a judge. That means no one is considering their criminal history or the danger they pose to the community.
Since the KING 5 Investigators first exposed this risky practice, judges in one county have quietly made some changes.
The McRae family of Sumner experienced the problem first-hand.
“We never saw him again,” Sandy McRae says of her late husband, Chip. “It was like he left the house that day and we never got to see him again."
Chip was hit and killed by a drag-racing driver in Puyallup in 2008 while riding his bicycle home to his wife and three boys.
After a four day manhunt, the driver, Blair Jensen, was locked up.
“When they finally told us 'we do have him,' we burst into tears,” said Sandy. “Finally, they had him. Then the news came later that they let him right back out.”
Jensen was released soon after his arrest because of a process at the Pierce County Jail known as booking bail. Jailers set bail according to a list of pre-set dollar amounts for each and every crime. It's used on nights and weekends when judges, who usually set bail, aren't around.
Because there's no judge, Jensen's lengthy criminal record wasn't considered.
“He had a previous hit and run," says Sandy.
Jensen’s booking bail for the death of Chip McRae was just $1,500 dollars cash.
“We were crushed,” says Sandy. “They finally get him and he gets to get out and go home and have dinner with his family."
Maurice Clemmons was released on booking bail in the months before he murdered four Lakewood police officers. Through our review of jail records, the KING 5 Investigators learned he was one of more than 2,000 suspected felons released on booking bail in the past two years.
“The booking bail system doesn't take into account a criminal history, danger to the community or other factors a judge could and would take into account at a hearing," says Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.
We also found jails in five Western Washington counties have booking bail for felony crimes. Even those suspected of the ultimate crime, murder, can qualify.
The man who shot Octavier Bushnell in the back and killed his best friend was released on a $50,000 booking bail hours after the shootings. A defendant is generally required to post of 10 percent of the bail in cash, so for years at the Pierce County Jail, a murder suspect could be released for as little as $5,000.
Now that $50,000 bail for murder in the second degree has increased five fold.
Since our original story in February, Pierce County judges have raised the booking bail amounts for 79 crimes. Bail for 31 of the most serious charges like kidnapping, manslaughter and vehicular homicide are now five times higher than before our story aired.
The booking bail policy is set by Pierce County's judges. Presiding Judge Bryan Chushcoff says judges met in the weeks following our story, agreed that the bail amounts were too low and voted to raise them.
Sandy McCrae thinks the judges should go one step further and eliminate booking bail altogether for the most serious crimes.
“It's just amazing that something like this can happen and the justice system gets them in the door and puts them right back out," she says.
All counties in Washington state may soon be forced to wipe out booking bail. A task force empaneled by the state Legislature is studying several issues, including booking bail, in the wake of the Lakewood police shootings.
State Rep. Troy Kelley, D-Tacoma, sponsored a measure to ban booking bail last session.
“Booking bail does not allow any judicial discretion,” says Kelley. “You just look at a chart and someone’s released on what the booking bail should be.”
He calls Pierce County judges decision to raise the bail amounts, “a step in the right direction.”