In The News

Bail: Extortion for Freedom

As commercial bail has grown into a $2 billion industry, bond agents have become the payday lenders of the criminal justice world, offering quick relief to desperate customers at high prices, write Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Shaila Dewan in the New York Times:

[B]ondsmen have extraordinary powers that most lenders do not. They are supposed to return their clients to jail if they skip court or do something illegal. But some states give them broad latitude to arrest their clients for any reason — or none at all. A credit card company cannot jail someone for missing a payment. A bondsman, in many instances, can.

Using that leverage, bond agents can charge steep fees, some of which are illegal, with impunity, according to interviews and a review of court records and complaint data. They can also go far beyond the demands of other creditors by requiring their clients to check in regularly, keep a curfew, allow searches of their car or home at any time, and open their medical, Social Security and phone records to inspection.

They keep a close eye on their clients, but in many places, no one is keeping a close eye on them.

“It’s a consumer protection issue,” said Judge Lee V. Coffee, a criminal court judge in Memphis. Before recent changes to the rules there, he said, defendants frequently complained of shakedowns in which bondsmen demanded extra payments. “They’re living under a constant daily threat that ‘if you don’t bring more money, we’re going to put you in jail.’” The pressure, the judge said, “would actually encourage people to go out and commit more crimes.”

Unlike payday lenders, the bail bond industry deals with potential criminals whose very involvement with the law raises questions about their trustworthiness.

The authors note that this system siphons millions of dollars from the poor and the pervasive use of bail has grown over the years:

The use of financial conditions for bail has not always been as widespread as it is today. In 1990, only 24 percent of those released from jail before trial were required to pay. That number soared to almost 50 percent in 2009, the most recent year for which national figures are available. In some jurisdictions, the number is far higher: In New Orleans in 2015, 63 percent of misdemeanor defendants and 87 percent of felony defendants had to pay to be released before trial, according to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the criminal justice system [and Art for Justice Fund grantee].

Commercial bail fees, often scraped together by multiple family members, siphon millions from poor, predominantly African-American and Hispanic communities. Over a five-year span, Maryland families paid more than $256 million in nonrefundable bail premiums, according to a report by the state’s Office of the Public Defender. More than $75 million of that was paid in cases resolved with no finding of guilt, and the vast majority of it was paid by black families.

In 2015, New Orleans families paid $6.4 million in premiums and fees, the Vera Institute of Justice found. In New York City last year, bond companies collected between $16 million and $27 million, “a sizable transfer of wealth,” noted Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, “to the pockets of opportunistic bail bond agents.”