The commercial bail system is literally a medieval industry. It’s time to reform it.
When it comes to bailing inmates out of jail, the United States is medieval. Literally. Bail bondsmen originated in England in the Middle Ages and later migrated to the New World. “As massive as the bail industry has become in America, it’s mostly unknown around the globe,” writes Russell Nichols in Governing (April 2011). In the rest of the world, it’s been outlawed “as an obstruction of justice.”
The commercial bail industry is widely criticized for shady methods and corrupt bondspeople who “swarm state courthouses, flashing special deals to defendants awaiting trial and shoving business cards into bathroom stalls, pay phones, and pockets,” writes Nichols. Largely unregulated bondspeople ignore state-mandated minimum fees—typically 10 percent—and illegally accept amounts as low as 2 percent, with no cash up front. Ultimately, critics argue, the system has no bearing on who is a risk to release but simply separates the poor and disempowered from those with influence or a money source.
Stephen Kreimer, executive director of the 15,000-member Professional Bail Agents of the United States, defends the industry, saying that it saves states valuable resources and money. If a defendant doesn’t show up for trial and goes fugitive, the private agent becomes a bounty hunter, shouldering the responsibility of chasing down the client or swallowing the lost fee. “Bounty hunters can break into homes without a warrant, make arrests, and, with the threat of forfeiture, they have an incentive to make sure defendants get to court,” writes Nichols.
Reformers advocate switching from the antiquated bail system to publicly funded pretrial screening programs that evaluate defendants’ character and flight risk. The theory is that community ties, job history, and drug use—not the ability to scare up some cash—determine how likely someone is to go fugitive or endanger the community.
Pilot screening programs around the country have had varying levels of success. An initiative in Florida’s Broward County enjoyed great strides—until bail lobbyists got involved and encouraged county commissioners to “gut the program,” writes Nichols. Meanwhile, in Colorado’s Larimer County, according to the Colorado Springs Independent (April 21–27, 2011), a successful screening program has reduced the number of trial no-shows to 2 percent.