Advice for new bondsman

It’s never the tiger’s fault for acting like a tiger.

It’s foolish to become indignant or upset when people act true to their character.

This morning’s Miami Herald had a news article about a zookeeper who lost the tip of her finger to a hungry tiger. It brought back memories of a similar though far more tragic accident many years ago in which a zookeeper was killed by a lion.

It’s not the tiger’s fault.

The tragedy at the zoo was front page news. At the time I was new to the bail business. I was in the company of veteran bondsman Douglas Aabbott when we passed a newspaper rack with the lurid bold headlines.

Doug asked me, “Whose fault is it?”

I responded with something along the lines that it was a terrible tragedy and that the zoo would certainly have to conduct a thorough investigation.

Doug interrupted me.

“Is it the lion’s fault?”

I stammered a bit and then conceded that what he was saying made sense. Whatever happened at the zoo, certainly the tragic death was not the fault of the lion. The lion simply acted like a lion.

Doug pressed his point home.

“That poor sap who died has only himself to blame. He never should have put himself in a position where the lion could kill him.”

Doug’s assessment was harsh but true and contains a lesson I have carried for many years in the bail business.  Our clients never put us out of business. Rather, we put ourselves in a position where our clients can hurt us. It’s never the client / defendant who makes it a “bad” bond. We make our own beds. It is foolish to become indignant or upset that a lion acts like a lion or that a tiger acts like a tiger or that a liar lies or that a thief steals.

Where we go astray and risk getting eaten up in the bail business is when we delude ourselves about the truth.

“He wouldn’t dare lie to me.”

“Even though he failed to appear before, it’s different this time.”

The reality is that a person who routinely lies will almost invariably lie to us — especially when they need our help. Likewise with someone who has a history of failures to appear for court. When dealing with such a client I have to ask myself, “What makes me so special?” It is not uncommon in the bail business for us to deal with unscrupulous people. Most of the bonds I regret weren’t about the client lying to me but rather me lying to myself by denying or refusing to acknowledge the truth. People act true to their character.

It’s the lies we tell ourselves and not the lies of our clients that lead to disaster. In the past I have taken car titles as collateral security for the posting of a bail bond. If my clients think that they are putting up their car, wonderful. If I lie to myself that I am holding anything more than an easily replaceable piece of paper, then I am headed for trouble.

We are in the business of risk. That said, the bail agents I most respect never allow a single defendant to be in a position to wipe them out. They do not put themselves in that position. A good question to ask ourselves is, “In a worst case scenario on this bond, what happens?” If the answer is that I am out of business and lose my livelihood, it’s time to explore alternatives.

The same lessons apply to insurance companies who underwrite bail. In my experience you can spend half a day in any jurisdiction in the United States and easily discover who the bad bail agents are. Amazingly, some insurance companies — obviously motivated by greed — will regularly give contracts to these bad actors and later cry about their losses. If a bail agent burns an insurance company by not properly reporting bond powers or handling forfeitures, what makes the next insurance company think that their results will be different? What makes them so special?

 

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.