by Joshua Page, Spring 2017 Contexts
I cold-called Bettie. Her son, Terrance, had a warrant for a serious crime, and he had turned himself in to the local jail. I’d called Bettie on behalf of “A-Team Bail Bonds,” hoping to land a bond. Bettie seemed relieved that I’d called and didn’t question how I got her number (agents use a database to find contact information for family of people in jail). With an anxious tone, she grasped for information: How did the pretrial process work? Would the judge lower the bail since Terrance turned himself in? I provided what little information I could, and we made a plan: she’d come to the office the next day, and I’d walk her to court, sit with her, and explain the proceedings and her options. Bettie seemed comforted.
About an hour later, Bettie called the office asking for me. She’d been watching the local news, and her son’s photo had flashed on the screen. Incredulous, Bettie and her daughter decided they should call me. I speculated: reporters must have gotten wind of his arrest, and since the charges were serious, it made for a story. Bettie seemed confused and despondent as she described the circumstances of the alleged crime and told me about her son’s background. She wondered what would happen if Terrance was convicted. Again, I provided what little I knew and assured her we’d know more in court. Bettie thanked me for my help.
I had a lot of expectations when I began my fieldwork as a bail bond agent in a large, urban county I call Rocksville. But in an industry that makes its profits by extracting about $2 billion a year from some of America’s most disadvantaged families, I hadn’t expected gratitude.
To be honest, I suspected clients would be resentful about forking over money, providing extensive personal information on bail applications, and agreeing to monitoring, even though defendants hadn’t been convicted of anything. And many clients were resentful, but a significant number also expressed clear appreciation.
My co-workers didn’t find this puzzling in the least. In their eyes, commercial bail agents were obviously invaluable service providers, a fact that merited some professional pride even though they were fully aware that service was entwined with aggressive, sometimes predatory profit-seeking. A seasoned co-worker suggested Bond Chasers as a title for a book based on my research, because, he said, we hustled business like “ambulance-chasing” lawyers.
As I became a full-fledged agent, I, too, came to see that bond companies offered a range of services to defendants and their friends and family members. As a sociologist, however, I could never fully adopt the other agents’ view that all of this was obvious, natural, and uninteresting. So I began to ask myself what political choices, legal practices, and criminal justice operations made A-Team’s myriad services necessary in the first place. Gradually, I came to understand how our services—and the gratitude they often elicited—were products of a system whose normal operations routinely failed our customers. Lacking other sources of information and support, desperate clients appreciated and sometimes even clung to the agents who were willing to help them out—even though they also knew that bondpersons were trying to “close a deal” that would cost them considerably.
The U.S. is one of only two nations with commercial bail bonds—the other is the Philippines. In this system, after arrest, the court either releases individuals on their own recognizance or requires them to post monetary bail to insure that they will show for scheduled court appearances. Since most defendants cannot afford the full amount of their bail, they enlist a bail company’s assistance. This private company charges a premium (typically 10% of the bail) and co-signers assume responsibility for ensuring the defendant makes it to court. Should the accused fail to appear, the court, in theory, moves to collect the full amount of the bail from the company. The bail company attempts to return the defendant to custody, sometimes using “bounty hunters”; failing that, it works to recoup the full amount of the bail from the bond’s co-signers.
Along with nearly every other country, a handful of U.S. states (Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Wisconsin), the District of Columbia, and the federal government do not compel defendants to pay non-refundable premiums to get out of jail. Instead, they use a combination of other techniques, such as having arrestees deposit money with the court that they get back—minus fines and fees—at the end of their case; charging defendants with new crimes for not showing up for court; denying release on bail (that is, pre-trial detention); requiring payment of bail for missing court; or mandating conditions of release, such as wearing an electronic monitor, checking in with court staff, or adhering to a curfew.
It is estimated that 450,000 people (two-thirds of the total U.S. jail population) are non-convicted defendants. The vast majority—roughly five out of six—are behind bars because they cannot afford bail, bond companies refuse to bail them out, or the court will not allow them to post bail.
In recent decades, the penal system and commercial bail have grown together—and quickly. It is estimated that 450,000 people (two-thirds of the total jail population) are non-convicted defendants. The vast majority—roughly five out of six—are behind bars because they cannot afford bail, bond companies refuse to bail them out, or the court will not allow them to post bail because of probation or parole violations, mandatory in-custody drug assessments, or other legal matters. Meanwhile, an estimated 14,000 U.S. commercial bail agents secure the release of more than two million defendants annually. Bail is now the dominant method for obtaining pretrial release (surpassing release on recognizance in 1998) and bail amounts set by judges have risen steadily.
Critics—including the American Bar Foundation and National District Attorneys Association—argue that for-profit bail contributes to a “two-tiered” justice that harms poor people. Keeping people in jail because they cannot afford bail contributes to jail crowding and drains municipal coffers, while non-refundable bail premiums function as pre-conviction punishment for those who can afford to get bailed out. Critics push, instead, for eliminating commercial bail and moving toward a combination of risk assessments and non-monetary conditions for release, like drug tests and check-ins with pre-trial staff, to try to ensure defendants show up for court and avoid criminal activity while on release.
Defenders of commercial bail—most often bail agents, companies, and the professional groups that represent them—acknowledge that the industry’s central aim is to make money. They describe it as a system that harnesses the profit motive and uses the dynamic energies of the free market to benefit taxpayers. Unlike publicly funded probation departments or pretrial agencies, they argue, bail companies manage defendants at no cost to counties. Going a step further, industry advocates like Dan Barto, a bail agent in Virginia who self-published an account of his experiences, maintain that bondspersons perform important services for those caught up in the pre-trial process:
I can say that in the several years I’ve been writing bonds, most bonding agents, myself included, derive satisfaction in helping people get through this legal process. We provide a service to people. While there may be some bondsmen who care only about the money, there are many who take pride in performing this service well.
On the surface, this may read as a simple claim for professional dignity. After all, bail agents are stigmatized in the legal field; judges, lawyers, and court staff typically do not view them as part of the courtroom workgroup. They are private actors who serve a legal purpose (getting people out of jail) but are not part of “the team.” And popular depictions of bail bonds often highlight corruption, exploitation, and macho exploits (think Dog the Bounty Hunter). In response, bail agents insist that they are professional service providers. And though this “service discourse” is deployed to defend and promote commercial bail, it isn’t wholly lip service; it reflects, as I learned in my fieldwork, something real about bail agents’ daily work experience.