The Bail Bond Industry is For Profit, but Not For Good:
New report supports elimination of for-profit bail bonding as part of justice system
WASHINGTON, DC – As early as 1912 – one hundred years ago – critics were concerned that poor people remained in jail while awaiting trial solely because of their inability to pay even small bail amounts, that bail bondsmen had become too prominent in the administration of justice and that corruption plagued the industry. Amazingly, these issues still apply to the for-profit bail bond system in today, the Justice Policy Institute shows in its new report, For Better or For Profit: How the Bail Bonding Industry Stands in the Way of Fair and Effective Pre-Trial Justice.
There are approximately 15,000 bail bond agents working in the United States, writing bonds for about $14 billion annually. Bail bond companies take billions from low-income people, with no return on investment in terms of public safety and added costs to communities, according to JPI’s findings. Backed by multibillion dollar insurance giants, the for-profit bail bonding industry maintains its hold in the pretrial system through political influence.
“For-profit bail bonding harms individuals, families and the integrity of our pretrial justice system,” said Spike Bradford author of For Better or For Profit and senior research associate for JPI. “The industry’s political influence also perpetuates the use of money bail instead of other alternatives that allow people deemed low risk of re-offending or failing to appear in court to remain free until their trial. The practice of for-profit bail bonding should be eliminated.”
While most places in the U.S. still use money as a primary release mechanism, and allow for-profit companies to post bond for people, some states and communities are moving away from money bail and bail bonding towards the use of Pretrial Service (PTS) agencies and risk assessments.“Bail bondsmen shouldn’t be mistaken for criminal justice professionals,” said Tracy Velázquez, JPI Executive Director.
“They’re more like bankers, trying to decide whether to give you a mortgage. While banks try to determine your risk of not being able to make your house payment, bail bondsmen only look at the likelihood of your not showing up for your court date, which is the only time their money is at risk. And given how the system is set up to minimize the instances when bail bondsmen must pay forfeitures – and that they’ll come after the person who paid for the bond for the full bail amount anyway – this risk is low indeed.”
PTS agencies, on the other hand, make sure someone appears at court, but they also want to ensure that people released pretrial don’t reoffend while in the community. They have tools – validated risk assessments – that not only can help them decide whether someone should be held in jail pretrial, but under what conditions of supervision a person might be released. For example, someone arrested for drunk driving might need to take random breathalyzer tests, or be required to wear a GPS bracelet so law enforcement can monitor their whereabouts. Pretrial service agencies can also help connect people with services they need to help them be successful in the community both until their trial and afterwards, including treatment, housing, etc. While PTS agencies are a government expense, this is more than offset by reduced court costs, fewer jail beds, improved public safety and more people able to remain in the community meeting their obligations to their employers and families.
Some other key points in the report include the following:
- Bail amounts are increasing. Court officials who believe that the more money someone pays the more likely they are to show up in court have been increasing bail amounts to take into account that people who use bondsmen must only come up with a percentage – often ten percent – of the total bail amount in cash to secure their release. In a vicious cycle, this has led to some bail bondsmen lowering their fee or allowing people to pay on installments, which in turn leads judges to set even higher bails, to the point that most people can no longer pay their own bail. This in turn, leads to more people in jail because they cannot make bail. Between 1992 and 2006 the average bail amount more than doubled from $25,400 to $55,500, far outpacing inflation for that period.
- Political influence keeps bail bondsmen in business. Today, the industry does a conservative estimate of $2 billion in revenue annually and is supported by around 30 insurance companies who underwrite them, who in turn are worth even more. The for-profit bail industry engages in multimillion dollar lobbying efforts to attack and defund pretrial services and increase their profitability by reducing regulation and financial risk. In California alone, the bail industry has spent almost a half million dollars on lobbying since 2000. In addition to lobbying, bail agents, businesses and associations have contributed over $3.1 million to state-level political candidates from 2002 to 2011, with over 4 in 5 dollars spent in ten states.
- The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been a driver of harmful bail legislation since 1994. Since the formation of The American Bail Coalition (ABC) and its association with ALEC, the for-profit bail industry has flourished while non-financial release has declined and bail amounts have risen. In the decade following their partnership, the percentage of arrested felons who were released without financial conditions fell from 41 to 25, while those release on a surety bond—that is, a bail bond—increased from 25 to 42 percent. ABC has joined forces with ALEC to draft model bills which reduce regulation and oversight of bail agents, promote higher bail amounts in bail schedules, increase the court’s burden in pursuing bond forfeitures and restrict the funding of PTS agencies and the populations eligible to participate in their programs.
- By its very nature, for-profit bail is ripe for corruption and abuse. That for-profit bail bonding introduces money and profit into the pretrial process and gives bail agents complete control of an accused person’s liberty has led to numerous instances of abuse and corruption in the industry. Cases abound of bondsmen bribing jailers and inmates for increased accessed to potential clients, employing brutal and illegal methods to extort money and information and even using their extralegal powers to coerce people into sexual acts. The industry laments the negative image these abuses create, but it is the system itself which enables such behavior.
- Alternatives to for-profit bail bonding exist and are effective. Effective pretrial release programs employ rigorous, validated risk assessments, offer pretrial release recommendations and supervise and monitor released persons within a continuum of options. Successful models of pretrial services can be found in Multnomah County, Oregon, Kentucky and the Federal System.
For Better or For Profit makes the following recommendations for improving pretrial justice:
- End for-profit bail bonding. Every jurisdiction should follow the lead of the four states where for-profit bail bonding is banned and institute robust, risk-based pretrial programs. Short of legislative banning, jurisdictions should implement non-financial release guidelines and procedures as well as work to reshape outdated pretrial attitudes and beliefs.
- Promote and further institutionalize pretrial services. Pretrial services are the most effective means of managing the pretrial assessment and possible release of people awaiting a criminal trial. They should be incorporated in justice systems where they are absent and supported where they currently exist. These agencies require political commitment to maintain adequate funding and to support legislation solidifying PTS as a jurisdiction’s primary method of pretrial decision-making.
- Require greater transparency within the industry. Until such a time that for-profit bail bonding can be eliminated from our nation’s pretrial systems, the industry must be held more accountable and to a greater standard of transparency.
“People may think that the for-profit bail bond industry is good for people with little income, because it means they won’t have to spend days or weeks in jail while awaiting trial,” Bradford.“But the fact is, the industry is driving up bail amounts so that no one can afford to pay their own bail, while keeping a substantial fee that no one gets back – even if found innocent. Given there are fairer and more effective pretrial justice options, the continuance of for-profit bail is not in society’s best interest.”
For Better or For Profit is the second in a series of three JPI reports on bail. Bail Fail: Why the U.S. Should End the Practice of Using Money for Bail, was released on September 11, and the final report, a first-hand look at Baltimore, Maryland residents’ experiences with the bail system comes out September 25. JPI is also hosting several events including conference calls and panel discussions for the media and general public.
For more information and to read For Better or For Profit: How the Bail Bonding Industry Stands in the Way of Fair and Effective Pre-Trial Justice, CLICK HERE. To read the Executive Summary, CLICK HERE. For additional information, please contact Zerline Hughes at 202.558.7974 x308 / 617.596.6958 or [email protected]. For more JPI reports on the criminal justice systems, please visit our website at www.justicepolicy.org.
The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is working to reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system and promote policies that improve the well-being of all people and communities. For more information, please visit www.justicepolicy.org.