For Better or for Profit: How the Bail Bonding Industry Stands in the Way of Fair and Effective Pretrial Justice

The for-profit bail bonding industry exerts control and influence over pretrial decision-making in jurisdictions throughout the country. Despite a checkered past, for-profit bonding is now a multi-billion dollar industry backed by giant insurance companies and trade associations with the money and political power needed to maintain their place in the criminal justice system.

The industry continues to prosper and grow despite decades of research and reform efforts that have changed the pretrial landscape to one that no longer requires the services of the professional bondsman.

In contrast to other pretrial mechanisms, for-profit bail bonding is unable to effectively manage people who are released pretrial. Other methods of release, such as the use of pretrial services (PTS) agencies, gauge pretrial risk based on several factors including prior criminal record, substance abuse history and severity of the current charge, to name but a few. For-profit bail bondsmen assess risk based the ability of the person—or their family—to pay the bond premium, and the risk they will have to pay the full bond amount if they fail to appear in court.

The industry touts its services as coming at no cost, but the system is very costly to the taxpayer and to the individuals and families who enter into the
bail bond agreement. Many of those who cannot or do not purchase a bail bond will remain in jail until their trial date, sometimes as long as a year. This has contributed to dangerously high jail populations, with a national average of 60 percent of people in jail awaiting their day in court. In some
jurisdictions, as many as 71 percent of people in jail have a pretrial status.

As courts increasingly recognize the ineffectiveness of for-profit bail bonding, the number of people released through a bail bond, and simultaneously
supervised and monitored by PTS agencies has grown dramatically, resulting in a greater taxpayer burden. This is solely due to deficits in the for-profit bail bonding service. Likewise, because of the lack of industry regulation, courts often choose to play it safe by raising bail amounts.
This increases pretrial jail populations for those who can’t afford release and increases the financial burden of those who can.

With the personal liberty of accused people held by a profit-driven private industry, for-profit bail bonding is systemically prone to corruption,
criminal collusion, and the use of coercion against bonded people. This phenomenon is not new and has plagued the industry for decades, resulting in a ban on for-profit bonding in four states.

The practice has been criticized widely for decades by such groups as the American Bar Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police, the
American Civil Liberties Union and numerous other criminal and social justice stakeholders. For profit bail bonding continues, however, largely because of the political influence the industry is able to leverage through lobbying, campaign donations and association with powerful anti-reform organizations. In numerous instances the for-profit bail bond industry has fought pretrial reform through the use of industry lobbyists, significant donations to industry-friendly policymakers, backroom influence and legislation with the help of their conservative corporate-financed partner: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

There are proven alternatives to the for-profit system that rely on statistically validated assessments of risk and a continuum of pretrial release options instead of money. It is through the use of these alternatives that the U.S. will be able to eliminate the use of the for-profit bail bonding industry, and ultimately money bail itself, while improving outcomes for people and communities and safely reduce jail populations, resulting in less costs and more safety for all of us.

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