In a recent column in which I took a walking tour of Downtown, I made light of the many bail-bond storefronts, sarcastically describing them as “clustered like boutiques on Rodeo Drive.”
Downtown activist and defense attorney Dayvid Figler objected, saying I was being unfair by equating bail bonds with blight. There’s a bunch Downtown because they want to be close to the Clark County Detention Center. It’s simple geography, he argued.
It’s a fair point, a simple case of the jail being too close to this newly important corridor. As Figler conceded, however, the situation is not ideal. The bondsmen offer a service that is of no use to the vast majority of us, not unlike Downtown lawyers. And wedding chapels.
This got me thinking: What exactly is this line of business that is lucrative enough to attract dozens of these entrepreneurs all over the Valley, all while we can’t get a full-fledged grocery store Downtown?
Bail is used to encourage the accused to appear, and to protect the public from danger. There’s a “standard bail schedule.” For instance, I’ll need $3,000 when I get charged with “anarchy.”
The actual bail, however, departs from the schedule and is based on a complicated formula that incorporates the circumstances of the alleged crime and the person’s record. Ultimately, the judge has almost total discretion, and bail can add up quickly. Say, for example, you try to cash a forged check in a casino for $200. You’ll be charged with possession of a forged instrument, attempted theft and even burglary. Pretty soon, your bail could be $15,000.
Now you have three choices: You can languish in jail until your trial or plea agreement, which could take weeks or even months, and for such a minor crime, you might be released immediately after pleading guilty; you can pay cash and get your money back so long as you appear; or, if you don’t have cash, you can go to a bail bondsman.
(Now’s the time to jog your memory of the Charles Grodin/Robert De Niro classic, Midnight Run.)
The bail bondsman will charge you 10 or even 15 percent of the bail, so in this case, $1,500, plus administrative expenses. They often require collateral, like a car or house title, which covers their loss if you don’t show up.
The bond is essentially insurance against you not appearing. If you don’t show, the bail bondsman hires a bounty hunter. Once they find you, you pay. If they don’t find you, the court gets a windfall, paid by the bail bondsman. The upshot is that we have a system in which people’s freedom is dependent on their ability to pay.
Reformers such as Timothy Murray, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, argue that this is unjust and foolish.
“The system that the bail-bond industry profits from and is keen on preserving is prejudicial to people who can’t afford release while affording for the public no protection against defendants who have access to money. And we don’t know where the money came from,” Murray says.
Instead of judging a person’s risk of flight or danger to the community, we use money as a stand-in, assuming, often wrongly, that a person with access to cash or a bail bondsman is less of a risk than a person without those advantages. The result, Murray says, is that billions of dollars are wasted housing 450,000 inmates in U.S. jails who haven’t been convicted, many of whom pose no flight risk or danger to the public.
Scott Hall, the president of a bail-bond industry trade group, points to a paper by Eric Helland of Claremont-McKenna College and Alexander Tabarrok of George Mason University, which posits 200,000 felony defendants fail to appear every year, and of these, about 60,000 remain fugitives for at least a year. And, the paper says, defendants who have a surety bond hanging over their head are 28 percent less likely to fail to appear in court.
Murray, however, calls the paper’s methodology flawed and points to jurisdictions that are assessing the true risk posed by defendants and releasing more of them—with some supervision—before trial. By doing so, Murray says, they’re saving taxpayers money by reducing jail costs.
Now, about those wedding chapels ...