America’s For-Profit Bail System: Only The Poor Pay
Religion & Liberty Online

America’s For-Profit Bail System: Only The Poor Pay

You may think that if you’re a law-abiding citizen, the concept of “bail” may be irrelevant. Well, maybe you forgot to pay your car insurance. Or maybe your license lapsed. You get pulled over because your tail light is out. It’s not a violent crime – a lapse in judgement, or a lack of money, perhaps.

And suddenly you need bail. $1000, the judge tells you, or you have to go to Rikers Island, New York’s main prison complex. You and 140,000 criminals. And someone like Robert Durst, accused of murder in Texas, is able to cough up a quarter million and walk away free.

America’s for-profit bail system is a $14 million a year industry, and the U.S. is one of only two countries that allows a for-profit system. According to a 2012 Justice Policy Institute report:

For-profit bail bonding costs taxpayers through increased jail and other justice expenses. In addition, it impacts people from low income communities – generally the loved ones of the accused person – who must pay nonrefundable fees for the bond regardless of case outcome and who, through contracts with the bondsmen, bear the real monetary risk of paying the full bail amount in the event of a court no-show.

In the early 20th century, bail bondsmen were primarily small business men. By mid-century, however, the for-profit business became dominated by “front-end sales agents for giant insurance companies.” These are not criminal justice professionals. They do not have public safety in mind, nor are they concerned for the people they serve. It is a profit-driven business.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a business that makes a profit. That’s what businesses are for, after all. However, a for-profit business that preys on the poor is a concern. It’s also clear that this is a business riddled with corruption.

A recent investigation showed that the for-profit bail industry engages in “multimillion dollar lobbying efforts” to increase their profitability and attack pretrial services operations. In California alone, the bail industry has spent almost a half million dollars on lobbying since 2000.

Campaign donations from the bail industry are also substantial. An analysis of state campaign donation records showed that bail agents, businesses and associations have contributed over $3.1 million to state-level political candidates from 2002 to 2011. Eighty-two percent of these donations ($2,600,070) were made with in ten states.

Bail agents have a financial interest in an accused person’s liberty, and that can lead to corruption and bribery. The report cited here suggests “pre-trial release programs:”

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 pretrial system.

Read “For Better or For Profit” from the Justice Policy Institute here.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.