Thursday, September 20, 2012

Reform Effort on a Century of For-Profit Bail Bonding

By Spike Bradford
1912 San Franciso Call article
lamenting corruption in for-profit
bail bonding.

As part of the JPI team working on a series of reports about money bail, for-profit bail bonding and the bail and pretrial experience in Baltimore jails, I have been researching bail bonding in the U.S. Much of what I’ve learned has been surprising and eye-opening, but no aspect has been as shocking as the history of bail bonding reform. Or, I should say, lack thereof.
For-profit bail bonding, the practice of paying a third party to guarantee your future appearance at trial for a crime you have been accused of, was established in the U.S. just before the end of the nineteenth century. It was the brainchild of the McDonough brothers, San Francisco organized crime bosses who would bail out bookmakers and prostitutes to get them back to work as quickly as possible. From the beginning, the trade was one of disrepute.
During for-profit bail’s century-plus history, it has undergone periods of reform driven primarily by the facts that it discriminates against poor people, erodes public safety and is prone to corruption. In fact, corruption in for-profit bail bonding has been so pervasive that four states --Wisconsin, Kentucky, Oregon and Illinois -- as well as numerous other jurisdictions, have outlawed or heavily discouraged the practice. 

I recently came across an old newspaper article from the March 18, 1912 San Francisco Call, in which police and court leaders vowed to “clear out bail bond evil” and the “shysters” who engaged in it. The “evil” behavior mentioned in the article --dated 100 years ago -- is virtually identical to behavior that can be found today just by searching for "bail bonding corruption." 

Reform efforts in the 60s, 70s and 80s all sought to make bail bonding fairer and to encourage the consideration of public safety risk in a business that allows accused people to be released from jail solely on their ability to pay a private insurance agent. The backers of such reform have included Attorneys General dating back to Robert Kennedy, the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the ACLU and numerous law enforcement and judicial figures. But, to date, bail bonding reform has been mostly one step forward, one step back. Given the weight of support for reform, why hasn’t bail bonding reform stuck?

The answer is in the numbers. Today, for-profit bail bonding is a multi-billion dollar business employing about 15,000 people. Despite the scale of the industry, virtually all bail bonds are underwritten by only 30 insurance corporations with the money and clout to wield political influence. The last two decades have seen the influence of the bail bonding industry explode through lobbying and campaign donations and a partnership with the powerful, conservative legislation mill, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). Anywhere there is an effort to reign in, reform or regulate the bail bonding industry, you can bet that the for-profit bail bonding industry will be there to fight against it. And they’ve got deep pockets. 

Spike Bradford is a Senior Research Associate for JPI. 

Note: JPI has named September JPI Bail Month and will publish a series of three bail reports on bail, for-profit bail bonding and the community impacts. JPI is also hosting a series of events throughout the month including panel discussions and conference calls.


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  2. I can't believe that bondsmen even up until this day have such a bad rep from people who have or did abuse their jobs. How many bad real estate agents, lawyers or doctors have there been? Should those fields be demonized? Every single one of our Las Vegas bail bonds clients would likely say they experienced fair dealing and was afforded a valuable service. Just look at the court FTA rates in Oregon and Illinois to see how "government/pretrial run bail bonds work out!" It's a joke.

    source: proud doing bail bonds in Las Vegas for years