Seven Questions about Bail, the Bail Business, and being a Bondsman

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding people have about bail?

I think people would be surprised by how grateful the family members and the accused are for the services which we provide. Most bail agents have a desk drawer full of thank you cards and letters. Getting arrested is often a wake-up call that forces the defendant and his family to admit that there is a problem which they can no longer deny. As bail agents we often have a front row seat and even get to play a small part in watching people transform their lives for the better.

We get "Thank You" cards.

We work very closely with family members of the accused and other members of their community circle in order to assure that we can guarantee their appearance in court. This includes working with the parties to establish affordable payments for the bond.

People are also surprised to learn that the bail agent — who owns and operates a small business in the community he or she serves — is almost always personally financially accountable for the defendant’s appearance. There is a common misconception that there is some big insurance company that will pay for failures to appear or that the bail agent can cut some sort of a deal. The reality is that the bail agent personally guarantees the defendant’s appearance in court. If the defendant fails to appear the bail agent locates and apprehends the fugitive. Failing that, the bail agent pays a substantial penalty to the State. That’s why private, secured bail works so well.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the bail bond business?

Our biggest challenge lies in continuing to educate politicians and policy makers about what we actually do and the vital role we play in the criminal justice system. Private bail enables communities to protect themselves and secure a defendant’s appearance for trial while allowing the accused to avoid pretrial detention. The secured bail which is posted by the independent licensed agents in jurisdictions across the United States is the single most effective and efficient way to achieve those goals. We do this at no cost to the taxpayers.

Many politicians and policy makers are unaware that defendants bailed by a commercial surety are far more likely to appear in court and far less likely, if they fail to appear, to remain at large for extended periods of time. Too often we find ourselves competing against publicly-funded government pretrial release programs that advocate the wholesale release of accused criminals with no real accountability.  Accused criminals have a constitutional right to bail. The question is who should pay for that bail? The friends and family of the accused, or the taxpayers?

What do you think about the efforts of Equal Justice Under the Law and their lawsuits seeking to end “money bail”?

Not much. It’s possible they have good intentions but they are naïve, very entitled and very miss-informed young men who have no real understanding of our criminal justice system or the purpose of bail. They are using these lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits to bully and extort small municipalities. They hold press conferences touting their goal of “ending the American money bail system.” But what they are really seeking is the immediate release of any defendant who simply says that he cannot afford the required bail. They believe that “caging” people is inherently wrong. Well, there is a reason we have jails.

This outfit claims that defendants are jailed because they are poor. The truth is that defendants are jailed because there is probable cause to believe that they committed a crime. The community has a strong vested interest in securing their appearance at trial. These lawsuits seek to force communities to immediately release accused criminals based solely on their unsubstantiated claim that they can’t secure their bond. This is absurd, and dangerous.

What do you think of current efforts to change the role of money in bail? What do you say to critics who contend using money in bail is unfair to poor people?

Money incentivizes people. People work for it and value it. A key reason why secured bail works so well is because people don’t want to lose their own money. The family of the defendant doesn’t want to lose money. The defendant doesn’t want to lose money and the bail agent certainly doesn’t want to lose money. Why do we require “money deposits” when we rent an apartment? By using a private licensed bail agent, friends and family of the accused pay only a small fraction of the bail amount (in most jurisdictions 10%, and strictly regulated by the State). The bail agent then pledges the entire penal amount of the bail bond to the court.

Affluent people don’t always need to use a bail agent to secure their bonds. They post their own assets and the fear of losing those assets (usually money) secures their appearance for trial. They are hardly “buying their way out” of jail. Rather, they secure their appearance by providing the court with tangible collateral security for their bail bond.

Bail agents permit bail for only a fraction of what the court requires and typically offer affordable installment plans to facilitate payment. Bail agents don’t discriminate against the poor. Rather, we routinely enable those of lesser means to secure their pretrial release by working with their family members, friends and social network. Ironically, the same voices that cry for an end to “money bail” frequently advocate GPS monitoring, drug testing and other cumbersome and very expensive measures that have little or nothing to do with securing the appearance of the accused at trial.

Most bail agents agree that there ought to be a mechanism to secure the pretrial release of truly indigent non-violent first time offenders with strong community ties. This was the original incentive for bail reform.  Today, most of the larger taxpayer-funded government pretrial release programs no longer even screen for indigence. The EJUL lawsuits seek the immediate release of accused criminals based upon their own unsubstantiated claim that they cannot secure their bond.

Detractors of private secured and accountable bail claim that the poor languish in jail solely due to their inability to secure bail. Almost always this proves to be untrue. The majority of pretrial jail inmates with low bonds almost invariably have other holds such as immigration and previous warrants for failure to appear or probation violations, etc. It’s an unfortunate myth that bail discriminates against the poor.

What’s the only thing worse than the telephone ringing at all hours of the night and day?

The telephone not ringing at all hours of the night and day.

How would the criminal justice system function without financially secured bail?

Not very well. Look no further than Washington D.C. and Kentucky for answers to that question. Those jurisdictions spend enormous sums of taxpayer money with very little to show for it. The only thing that matters in a pretrial release decision is whether the accused defendant will appear and whether there is an acceptable risk to public safety in releasing the defendant. The larger publicly-funded release programs like those in Kentucky and Washington D.C. fail on both counts. They do a lousy job of ensuring appearance and almost nothing to assure public safety. They claim they “supervise” through the use of drug testing, GPS bracelets and the like but how well can you claim to monitor behavior when you can’t even guarantee appearance?

As an example, Washington D.C.’s pretrial release program recently placed a GPS tracker on an accused murderer’s fake leg to assure his house arrest. The defendant promptly swapped prosthetic limbs and left his house to go murder someone. Right up until the police obtained a search warrant and found the fake leg with the GPS tracker still attached, the pretrial release employees maintained that the defendant whom they were “monitoring” was still confined to his apartment. In Kentucky, accused defendants are regularly released even with a history of many prior failures to appear.

In short, most of these publicly-funded pretrial release programs fail in assuring appearance and do nothing to protect public safety. They are great successes, however, at spending tax dollars.

Their latest panacea is “risk assessment.” They claim that by utilizing often-times secret algorithms that they can accurately predict who will commit future crimes and who will appear in court. These so-called “risk-based decision tools” are a cynical attempt to evade any accountability. People like judges are no longer responsible or accountable for release decisions; it becomes simply a matter of risk data analytics. What you end up with is a system that releases dangerous felons with prior failures to appear because they score out correctly. Non violent defendants with strong community ties remain locked up because of “brave new world” risk assessment scores that predict the likelihood of future crimes.

Any advice for new bail bondsman?

 Bail bonding is real risk assessment. We are in the business of risk and the stakes are high. Listen. Listen carefully. Practice listening. Listen to what they are saying and listen carefully to what they are not saying.

Get political. Be active in your community. If you don’t have a terrific work ethic, consider finding another line of work. Learn everything that you can about everything that you can. Join and participate in your local, state and national bail associations. It’s not the bonds you write that will ensure your success; it’s the bonds you don’t write.  Don’t lie to yourself. Keep your word.

Watch out for identical twins.

How to Become an Indentured Servant instead of a Bail Bondsman in Four Easy Steps.

Step 1: Enter into a liable bail agent contract with an unscrupulous Company. Sometimes this is an insurance company itself. More often it’s a managing general agent or large operator with multiple offices. If you weren’t so concerned with getting paper at a low rate, you’d ask about the origins of those multiple offices.  But don’t ask that question and don’t ask why they are so willing to give you low cost paper on such favorable terms. They don’t even want much in the way of contract collateral. Which is a good thing, since you don’t have any. Congratulate yourself on getting a lower rate for your paper than all of the long-time established bondsman in your jurisdiction.

Indentured ServantStep 2: Write lots of bonds. Delude yourself into thinking that they are good bonds even though they lack the full premium and any sort of tangible collateral. Tell yourself this lie over and over: The indemnitors will pay me the face value of the bond if it goes bad. Believe this lie even in the face of the fact that they don’t even have the 10% premium, much less any realistic ability to raise the full bond amount.  If, even with your extraordinary capacity for self-delusion, you can’t quite convince yourself of this lie then tell yourself a different lie: You’ll be able to find him if he skips. Lie to yourself that the defendant is a U.S. citizen. Sort of. Even though he was born in the Dominican Republic.

Step 3: Report your executed bonds infrequently. The life-long bondsman down the street reports his executed bonds weekly.  You have enough bond powers in your inventory, however, that you only need to report to the Company once every three or four months. When you do report your executed bonds, cherry pick the report and only include a small fraction of all the executed bonds.  Report and pay for just enough bond powers to keep the flow going and to avoid completely depleting your very generous power inventory.  Drive a really nice car even if you can’t afford it. Tell yourself that appearances count. Keep yours up even in the face of increasing non-appearances (by defendants in court). Use today’s premium to pay for last month’s losses. Rob Peter to pay Paul. Repeat.

Step 4: When your friends at your Company complete their “routine” audit of your agency, they will act shocked that you have executed virtually all of the bond powers in your inventory.  They will ask you for the premium you owe them on the executed bond powers.  When you honestly tell them that you cannot pay the entire amount that is due to them all at once, they will remind you of what you were forced to learn back when you first earned your bail license. That portion of the premium belonging to the Company is trust funds, which you are required to accept and forward to them in a fiduciary capacity. You have committed — they will remind you — larceny by embezzlement.  Decide to avoid criminal charges, jail time and the loss of your bail license by agreeing to their “terms”. You no longer have a low rate for paper. You now have, instead, a partner. That’s the term they will use, anyhow.

I think indentured servant is more accurate. If you don’t like your new partners or the fact that they take 50% or more of everything coming in your door, remind yourself that you made your own bed. They will tell you these terms will last only until they are made whole. Here is a hint: They will never be made whole and you will never get a square count.

Some of us check references and conduct background checks before we underwrite even a $500 bond. Some of us conduct no due diligence whatsoever when selecting the company we keep. We probably get what we deserve.

Absurd Tragedy illustrates inadequacies of Government-run Pretrial Release Programs

The vocal detractors of “money bail” often point to Washington D.C. as shining example of how things could be if we eliminated secured accountable private bail. Sadly, they couldn’t be more right.

In Washington D.C. they release 85% of accused criminals awaiting trial on unsecured bail through such a program. Program administrators claim that a whopping 87% of those released through their bloated government agency actually show up to court, though this figure is highly suspect. Even if accurate, having 13% of all accused criminals not show for trial hardly seems worth bragging about. Any bondsman who had 13% of his defendants on the lam would be looking for a new line of work.

Washington D.C. has tens of thousands of open felony warrants, and of course no one from the Pretrial Services Agency goes out looking for any of them. They do claim to send friendly text messages — which surely has D.C.’s most dangerous fugitives quaking in their boots.

On paper the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia looks fantastic. In return for the hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer dollars ($231,304,986 in 2015) they produce beautiful four-color reports and lofty mission statements like this:

The GPS tracker was attached to the suspect's fake leg.

The GPS tracker was attached to the suspect’s fake leg.

The Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia (PSA) assists judicial officers in both the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and the United States District Court for the District of Columbia by conducting a risk assessment for every arrested person who will be presented in court and formulating release or detention recommendations based upon the arrestee’s demographic information, criminal history, and substance abuse and/or mental health information.

For defendants who are placed on conditional release pending trial, PSA provides supervision and treatment services that reasonably assure that they return to court and do not engage in criminal activity pending their trial and/or sentencing.

PSA supervises approximately 16,000 defendants each year, and has oversight for approximately 4,000 individuals on any given day. PSA’s caseloads include individuals being supervised on a full range of charges from misdemeanor property offenses to felony murder. PSA administers evidence-based and data-informed risk assessment and supervision practices to identify factors related to pretrial misconduct and to maximize the likelihood of arrest-free behavior and court appearance during the pretrial period. PSA continues to improve its identification of defendants who pose a higher risk of pretrial failure, enhance its supervision and oversight of these defendants.

Supervise defendants to support court appearance and enhance public safety. PSA effectively monitors or supervises pretrial defendants to promote court appearance and public safety.

It sounds impressive, right? Of course most jurisdictions would be hard pressed to budget $230 million in order to supervise 4,000 defendants. (It’s nice to be the Federal Government.) Regardless, the Pretrial Services Agency has served the District of Columbia for nearly 50 years and is widely recognized by advocates of publicly funded pretrial release programs as a national leader in the field of pretrial supervision. They regard the Pretrial Services Agency’s “innovative supervision and treatment programs” as models for the criminal justice system.

What does this actually mean when they brag about how well this government program supervises and monitors accused criminals who are released pretrial? According to their own questionable records, more than 13 of every 100 released to their “supervision” abscond. And as for the ones that don’t become fugitives?  How, precisely, are they supervised in order to support court appearance and enhance public safety?

In April of this year, Quincy Green, 44, was arrested in Washington D.C. and accused of gun charges. He was released from jail pretrial through the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia. Green was enrolled in the program’s most restrictive form of pretrial release:  a GPS tracking bracelet. He joined the ranks of some 400 other defendants in D.C. who are awaiting trial and roaming about the capital while wearing a GPS tracker.

On May 19, 2016, Dana Hamilton was fatally shot. D.C. police suspected that Quincy Green was the murderer but the Pretrial Services Agency insisted that Green was confined to his apartment and that the GPS tracker proved he was not in the area where the murder took place. Eyewitness testimony and even sightings of Green by police officers were dismissed because the agency’s GPS data “proved” otherwise.

Finally the police obtained a search warrant based in part on a statement that the “devise barely moved” over the course of three days, something that somehow escaped the notice of the pretrial agency engaged in actively “monitoring” his whereabouts.

Police found the GPS tracking devise in Green’s apartment, attached to his prosthetic leg.

“I don’t understand how someone could put this device on a prosthetic leg,” said Sgt. Matthew Mahl, chairman of the D.C. police union. “It is frustrating for us as police officers to have one of our defendants released, especially when talking about dangerous crime like guns–and then to know that the accountability for these defendants isn’t always up to par.”

The director of the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia said all the right things, of course, including “This is the first instance where something like this has happened, and the results were tragic.”

It’s no doubt the first time they put a GPS tracker on a fake leg but it’s certainly not the first or last time that they release violent criminals with no one held accountable for either appearance in court or public safety. Guess how many employees of the pretrial agency will be fired over the murder of Dana Hamilton? Do you think they will cancel the contract with the private contractor who supplies and fits the GPS bracelets on the accused criminals they release? It’s naive to think that either will happen. Rather, the pretrial releases agency will continue to sell gullible taxpayers and politicians a bill-of-goods, that they safely release and supervise accused criminals.

Imagine the immense indifference and utter apathy required in order to fit a GPS tracker to a fake leg. This is far more than a forgivable lapse or simple mistake. This is the act of a person with absolute security that comes from knowing he cannot actually be held accountable. You would never ever find a bondsman making such a mistake since by definition he or she is accountable.  This kind of couldn’t-possibly-care-less attitude thrives amongst government employees where no one is actually held responsible for what happens. The budget of Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia will not be adjusted one penny following this tragedy. After a flurry of memorandums regarding not fitting the GPS trackers over a sock, the murder of Dana Hamilton will be quickly forgotten.

But it will not be forgotten by the 72-year old mother of the murdered victim: “This was the worst thing that ever happened to me. That man was supposed to be in his house.”