Because everyone else is doing it. Or because everyone else is not doing it.

A look at one of the lame-brained arguments used by opponents of accountable, secured pretrial release.

And, besides, what’s wrong with something that’s uniquely American?

Anyone in the bail bond business knows that there is an increasingly vocal and strident minority who would like to eliminate our profession completely. It doesn’t matter to them how effective we are at guaranteeing the appearance of defendants released pretrial. It doesn’t matter to them that we go out and routinely apprehend dangerous criminals who fail to appear at no cost to the taxpayers. It doesn’t matter to them that we are accountable to the criminal justice system and to the courts. It most certainly doesn’t matter to them that we pay taxes, support families and serve our communities.

None of the relevant facts matter. They are committed to ending what they call “money bail.” (We call it constitutionally protected secured bail.) The more money that these outfits siphon from the public trough, the louder become their cries to eliminate the evils of “money” in the criminal justice system. The irony is not lost on me that these “free” publicly-funded pretrial release advocates solicit “money” donations on their websites and grant applications.

Outfits like PJI burn through copious amounts of hard earned taxpayer “money” to produce bogus “studies” which invariably conclude that accused defendants should be released on unsecured bail bonds. One of their recurring fallacious arguments concerns the role of private commercial bail agents in the United States.

Popular does not always equal rightPopular does not always equal right

They argue that the United States is the only country in the world that has commercial bondsmen. Sometimes their claim is modified to state that only the United States and Singapore have commercial bail. I don’t know if this true or not, but honestly, who cares? The flawed argument is that since other countries don’t have such a system, therefore “money” (ie: secured and accountable) bail here in the United States ought to be eliminated.


First of all, when I went to school this was called an argumentum ad populum. My Mom had a much simpler description, “If all of your idiot friends jumped off of a bridge would you, too? To be clear, what they are saying to policy makers and anyone else who will listen to their poppycock is that if most countries don’t have commercial bail, then commercial bail must not have value. To show you just how hypocritical and disingenuous they are, they will often follow this illogical argument – sometimes in the very following paragraph – with the claim that Washington DC and Kentucky have eliminated commercial bail and therefore the other states in the U.S. should as well. So they are left with this absurd position: Eliminate commercial bail because the overwhelming majority of the other countries don’t have it. Eliminate commercial bail even though the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions in the United States use it.

They are wrong on both counts. Of course it’s preposterous to suggest that commercial bail should be eliminated because other countries don’t have it. We have commercial bail because it is effective and serves a critical role in our criminal justice system – not because of its popularity in other countries. Besides the fact that such an argument is illogical, what is wrong with something being uniquely American?

I am proud of my profession as a bail agent. I am also proud to be a citizen of the United States. I could be wrong, but I think that – just like commercial bail – the following are some things that are uniquely American:

  • College Football
  • BBQ
  • Muscle cars
  • Thanksgiving
  • Boy Scouts
  • Apple Pie
  • Blue Jeans

The next time you hear one of these misguided zealots say that only the United States has commercial bail, let them know that it has taken the rest of the world a while to catch up with us on NFL football and Harley Davison motorcycles as well.


What does it cost you to not join your local, state and national bail agent associations?

Near the close of the first full day of the PBUS (Professional Bail Agents of the United States) winter conference they hold a happy hour mixer and new member reception. I have been a member of PBUS for many years, so the Las Vegas cocktail party is a little less awkward for me than perhaps it once was. I’ve learned that you’re among friends who speak the same language you do and understand this business we’re in. I really enjoy being in a room full of bail agents from all across the United States.

Michael Hansen, Sr., a satisfied member of PBUSMichael Hansen, Sr., a satisfied member of PBUS

Anyhow, I spotted a guy that I have never met before but had noticed earlier in the PBUSGeneral Session featuring Michèle Stuart of Jag Investigations. Stuart had presented an all-day interactive breakout session on Internet Profiling and Intelligence Gathering. I asked this stranger what he thought of the class. He answered by pulling out his cell phone to show me a photo of a very unhappy looking guy sitting in the back seat of a car. He took a look at all the ribbons hanging off of my PBUS name badge. Concluding that I must be active with the association, he said, “You people need to raise the registration fees.”

Here is what happened. This agent, Michael Hansen, Sr., — like every other bail agent I spoke with — loved Michèle Stuart’s presentation. Even though it took up almost an entire day, most attendees were left with the feeling that it could have been longer still. Stuart really knows her stuff. And her stuff is of great value to us bail agents.

Michael Hansen, Sr., took notes during the class and paid particular attention when Stuart talked about how photos on the internet often contain “hidden” information which may well include geo-location on a subject. She taught us how you can often learn precisely where a photo was taken.

Hansen didn’t need to hear this part twice. He and his son, Mike Jr., have been seeking a fugitive on a $20, 000 bond they posted in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Using what they learned in the first breakout session of the PBUS winter conference, they had their bond skip in custody within three hours of the class.

This is why Michael Hansen, Sr., joked about PBUS raising their registration fees. This is also why his first PBUS conference will surely not be his last. What he learned directly resulted in the apprehension and surrender of his fugitive. This took place within three hours of learning the information in the PBUS class.  I didn’t catch a bond skip, but now if I need help in York, Pennsylvania I know who to call for help. And I also learned a thing or two (or 50) in Michèle Stuart’s class.

If you are in the bail bond business, maybe you should be making arrangements to join and support the PBUS. The summer conference will be in Biloxi this July. How much will it cost you to miss it?

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Accountability Matters: Commercial Bail is For Profit and Proud of It

Money WorksA couple weeks back we wrote an article on the surprisingly controversial topic of “MONEY” in the criminal justice system and how it is being used by some in the public sector pretrial community like a Scarlett letter to shame the commercial bail industry. Unfortunately this argument is used all too often and it is an argument that in my opinion has no merit or relevance to the issues of jail overcrowding and bail reform.

The commercial bail profession is exactly that…a profession. It employs tens of thousands of men and women all over the country. And yes…those people earn a salary for providing a service. Is that a horrible thing? Is it wrong for the tax accounting industry to charge a fee for preparing someone’s taxes? Is it wrong for your insurance agent to earn a commission from State Farm or Allstate for selling and managing your homeowners or car insurance policy? Is it wrong for your dry cleaner to charge you for cleaning your clothes? Last time I remember, these types of financial transactions were seen as valuable services and not frowned upon as for-profit money hungry business owners taking advantage of poor unaware consumers.

That being said, why is there so much criticism of the commercial bail industry for getting paid for the service that they provide? That service…facilitating the pretrial release of a qualified defendant with the assurance that the defendant will make ALL scheduled court appearances…not just the convenient ones, but ALL of them. It only seems logical that if a private for profit entity can accomplish those two tasks, facilitating release and assuring appearance at court, that those in the criminal justice system would support and applaud the efforts of such a business, as these business are difficult to run, so having conferences is important for organization and the use of a conference av hire equipment can be essential for these conferences to go great.

. Add to that, the ability of this private for-profit industry to accomplish these tasks more efficiently and more effectively than any other form of pretrial release at NO COST to the counties, and the criticism of the commercial bail industry becomes even more mind boggling.

Before I go further, I think it is important to point out a very important fact and one that is so painfully obvious that it is almost laughable that I have to mention it….public sector pretrial services employees DO NOT WORK FOR FREE. Yep…every pretrial services employee gets paid to do their job. In fact, everyone at the Pretrial Justice Institute gets a salary too. Everyone at NAPSA gets a salary. Everyone at the VERA Institute gets one. Just like you, me and everyone else, they do a job for greenbacks. In some pretrial programs, like those managed by the VERA Institute in New Orleans, the employees and executives of VERA make salaries (some over $100,000 a year) that are so large they dwarf those of some of New Orleans true essential public sector employees like school teachers, police officers and fire-fighters. All the while, pointing the finger at others for making money for doing their job. And as much as they might not want to admit this fact about themselves or even talk about it, it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

However, in the eyes of some public sector proponents getting paid or “funded” as they put it is a non-issue because they a providing FREE services to the public. Newsflash to those in the public sector pretrial community that think this way…Nothing is FREE. Everything has a cost, whether you want to accept, ignore it or spin it. Asking someone to purchase an insurance policy to be released from jail has a cost just as does letting someone out of jail for “FREE” (without an insurance policy guaranteeing their return) has a cost. The difference is that the insurance policy is paid by those that are close to the defendant and vouch for them, and so called FREE release through a pretrial program is paid for …or shall we say “funded” by taxpayer dollars. And by the way, notice that one of the options is actually an “insurance policy.” An insurance policy guaranteeing the return of that defendant to court… and the other option has no guarantee. Which method are you more comfortable with as a taxpaying member of the public? That is a no brainer in my opinion.

Money aside, it is unfortunate and to be honest, a little scary that so much of the debate around pretrial release is not about effectiveness and not about efficiency. It has been warped by some in the pretrial community into a discussion about profit and money, and the leading premise being sold by some public sector pretrial proponents in that discussion is that both are evil, unfair and unnecessary. All the while, these groups spend over $100,000,000 in taxpayer funds annually ($58 million alone in Washington DC) running their programs, paying their employees and letting defendants out of jail for FREE ) remember with NO GUARANTEE OF RETURN and no accountability by those that are responsible for ensuring those people make it to court.

I would like to propose that instead of focusing on profits and non-profits, that the pretrial/bail reform debate focus on things that are more important. Things like effectiveness. Things like efficiency. Things like accountability. There is no shortage of data or research that answers those questions. There have been private research studies, government funded research studies, educational research studies done, and they have the same conclusion. Financially secured release is the most effective way to ensure that those released pretrial show up for court. Unfortunately for the public sector pretrial community, none of that data generated in those independent studies support their approach. That is why we never hear them mention it. That is why it doesn’t enter the conversation. When you are dealing with issues like public safety and the criminal justice system shouldn’t that be the thrust of the discussion? Shouldn’t those things be the foundation of the solution? Letting more and more people out of jail more quickly and for FREE in order to be “fair” is not the answer. It only exacerbates the problem and teaches those the break the law that there will be no accountability and no real punishment for their actions. And rewarding bad behavior in this way only leads to one thing…more bad behavior.

If some of those in the pretrial community want to have a debate about money and the cost of business, the commercial bail industry is ready to have that discussion all day long. Because the commercial bail industry operates at NO COST to the county while public sector pretrial programs operate at significant cost. When all is said and done, the reality is that everyone pays and everyone gets paid and it’s time for the pot to stop calling the kettle black. It is time for us all to put real thought into making the criminal justice system work as effectively and as fairly as possible by using the tools and processes that work best.

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Cops can Execute a Warrant in the Middle of the Night in a Public Park

State v. Williams (ICA September 22, 2014)
Background. Fred Williams was in Cartwright Park in Honolulu after closing time. The signs around the park posted that no one can be there between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. The police found him and cited him for being in the park during the off-hours. In the process, they discovered that an outstanding bench warrant (a judge ordered a warrant for his arrest for failing to show up to court on an unrelated matter) was out for him. He was subsequently arrested for that. After being placed in handcuffs, the police discovered a glass pipe, two lighters, and small baggies on his person. This discovery led to prosecuting him for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia. The warrant, however, expressly and explicitly stated that it could not be executed between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. “on premises not open to the public.”
Williams moved to suppress on the grounds that the warrant was improperly executed. The circuit court granted the motion. The prosecution appealed.
The Limits of Executing Warrants. Warrants shall “contain a prohibition against execution of the warrant between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. on premises not open to the public, unless a judge of the district or circuit court permits execution during those hours in writing on the warrant[.]” Hawaii Rules of Penal Procedure (HRPP) Rule 9(b). The Williams warrant contained this prohibition. And yet the warrant was executed on a premises that was “not open to the public”—Cartwright Park after dark.
Court rules are interpreted like statutes. Molinar v. Schweizer, 95 Hawaii 331, 334-35, 22 P.3d 978, 981-82 (2001). When “the terms of a statute are plain, unambiguous and explicit, we are not liberty to look beyond that language for a different meaning.” State v. Haugen, 104 Hawaii 71, 75, 85 P.3d 178, 182 (2004). But this isn’t always the case. According to the ICA, when a literal construction leads to “an absurd and unjust result,” id., the court can resort to the legislative history to discern the intent behind the language.
“Not Open to the Public” Means Private and Places that the Public can go to. The ICA zeroed in on the part of the rule that forbid the police from executing warrants in places at night that were “not open to the public.” The Judicial Council of Hawaii’s Committee on Revision of the Rules of Criminal Procedure came up with these words in the 1970s. Back then, the drafters used the words “not open to the public” instead of “private” in order to avoid the technical and difficult questions related to title.
The ICA agreed with the prosecution that a literal reading of the prohibition lead to an absurd and illogical result. It concluded that limiting the execution of warrants “on public property only to those hours the property is technically ‘open’ is to make the exception a nullity.”
No Need to Fear Nighttime Warrant Executions Here. Warrants are normally not allowed to be executed at night because there is a “greater expectation of privacy that individuals possess in their homes at night” and a nighttime search creates a “heightened safety risk since people may tend to overreact to an entry by force in the dead of night[.]” State v. Richardson, 80 Hawaii 1, 7, 904 P.2d 886, 892 (1995). This concern, according to the ICA, is absent when the warrant is executed on public property.
And so the ICA vacated the suppression order and remanded the case back to the circuit court for further proceedings.
Rule 9 and the Homeless Hypothetical. The ICA appears to have held Rule 9’s “prohibition against execution of the warrant between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. on premises not open to the public” does not prohibit the police from executing a warrant in a public park during off-hours. The details surrounding Williams and Cartwright Park in this opinion are few and far between. Perhaps Williams was standing around and the police approached him for being in the park after dark. That seems to fit well with the ICA’s interpretation of Rule 9.
But what if this wasn’t Cartwright Park? What if this was Aala Park and what if Williams was living in a tent? Or even under a shopping cart? Would the “greater expectation of privacy” still be absent? According to the ICA, the answer seems to be yes. The ICA held as a matter of law that the police may execute a warrant in the middle of the night so long as the person is on public property—even if you’re in a tent on that public property. That strongly suggests that the homeless do not have an expectation of privacy. Now, we will have to wait for such a case to come before the appellate courts to determine that much more difficult question.

Inside the Wild, Shadowy, and Highly Lucrative Bail Industry

THE LARGEST ANNUAL GATHERING of bail bondsmen in the country—the convention of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, or PBUS—was slotted between Dunkin’ Donuts and Elk Camp 2013 at the Mirage Resort and Casino, a tall, shiny structure shaped like an open book and set against replicas of the Colosseum and Eiffel Tower on Las Vegas’ Strip, while if you want to visit an online casino there are options like the olympic kingsway casinos that are great for this. The sidewalk out front was littered with cards bearing phone numbers and pictures of naked women. In the courtyard, flames licked the late-winter air to the rhythm of a tribal drum every hour, on the hour. A sign at the entrance announced that the casino’s dolphin just had a baby and we would be able to see it soon. As I walked through the smoky slots area I saw a man with a PBUS lanyard doing an extremely forced I’m-having-fun dance with his assistant while a casino employee showed them how to play the one-armed bandit. It was a bit of a letdown from what I’d been anticipating—all-night blackjack sessions with bondsmen and bounty hunters telling tales from the street over stiff drinks. I’d even grown a mustache for the event, thinking it would help me blend in a little—bondsmen have mustaches, don’t they?

Not really, I discovered when I arrived at the welcome reception. “So how do you like the industry?” I asked a clean-shaven man in a shiny gray suit who looked to be about 30. “I like it,” he said buoyantly, taking a sip of his beer. “Sometimes you get real lucky.” He told me about the first bond he ever wrote in the cheerful, blow-by-blow manner of a poker player recounting a winning hand. A college student went out drinking and crashed his car into a fence, he explained. “So him and a girlfriend both get kinda messed up.” He beamed. I was confused—was I to realize that this was a boon? He quickly explained that normally, bail for a DUI was $5,000, but since it involved an injury, the amount automatically jumped to $100,000. When he told the driver’s mom she would have to pay him a $10,000 fee to get her son out of jail, she said, “No problem. Here’s my credit card number.” He smiled and took a sip from his beer, nodding happily. “I couldn’t believe it.”

The business model is pretty straightforward. Say you get arrested for drug possession and wind up in jail. Shortly afterward you appear before a judge who decides whether to let you out before your trial (only people charged with the most heinous crimes are denied bail altogether) and, if so, what collateral it will take to make sure you don’t bolt. For drug possession, let’s say the judge sets bail at $30,000. If you have that kind of money, you can give it to the court and get it back when you show up for trial. If you fail to appear, you lose it. If you don’t have that much cash, you have two choices: sit in jail and wait for your trial, or hire a bail bondsman. To the bondsman you pay a nonrefundable fee—usually 10 percent of the bail—and he promises the court that you will show up for trial. If you don’t, he will owe the court $30,000.

The man in the gray suit continued: “I write real A+ stuff,” he said. “You make the most money off domestic violence, cuz the bail’s high. Domestic violence is $50,000. You figure that’s at least $5,000″ in the bank. “And a lot of times those cases don’t even get filed—” His eyes drifted toward the middle distance behind me. I turned around to see Dog the Bounty Hunter entering the room, cameras swirling around him. His blond mullet flowed down the shoulders of his flame-embroidered leather jacket. His sunglasses sat on top of his pink forehead. People edged in for handshakes and pictures. They all knew his A&E reality show, in which he kicked in doors and pepper-sprayed fugitives for bail bondsmen around the country. Dog, like many bounty hunters, was a freelance contractor, hired by bondsmen to track down clients who skipped court. He was a private policeman of sorts, empowered by the state to bust into the houses of people out on bond, make arrests, and detain people—things bounty hunters get to do with minimal, if any, training and regulation.

Dog’s show was suspended for a few months in 2007 after his son sold theNational Enquirer recorded phone conversation in which Dog said he couldn’t work for him unless he broke up with his black girlfriend. It wasn’t because she was black, Dog said, but “because we use the word ‘nigger’ sometimes here. I’m not gonna take a chance ever in life of losing everything I’ve worked for for 30 years because some fucking nigger heard us say ‘nigger’ and turned us in to theEnquirer magazine.” Dog was the star guest of the convention.

For starters, he said, all bail agents should require clients’ Facebook and email passwords.

Hundreds of bondsmen were here to learn the tricks of the trade. In one workshop, the president of the association gave an impassioned speech about the IRS—”Don’t even think about talking to those folks. They are not your friend.” In another, a private investigator schooled us in the art of catching skips. For starters, he said, all bail agents should require clients’ Facebook and email passwords. Another tip was to maintain fake Facebook pages and friend clients to keep track of them. The instructor has 11 faux personas. (Stuck in traffic? “Update the page where you are a 14-year-old girl.” Waiting for a meeting? “Update the one where you are a 97-year-old guy.”) If your client has an iPhone, a.k.a. “snitch in your pocket,” require her Apple ID so you can trace her anywhere. And don’t forget about Google—you can subpoena them for your clients’ records.

He taught us about companies that drive around scanning license plates. They market themselves to repo companies,but if a bondsman is looking for someone, he can give them a license number and they’ll tell him where the car has been and when, for $7 a hit. He also said we should all think about getting drones. “I use a drone in my business…I can control it from my iPad. Guy’s got a big, long driveway and a barking dog? No problem.” He made a little buzzing sound as his hand mimicked a drone zipping up the driveway and taking pictures of license plates. “I keep this thing in the trunk of my car.”

It wasn’t hard for Edmund Langevin III to become a bondsman. All it took was five days of classes and $400; that, plus a $150 firearms class, gave him the power to make arrests and use a gun on the job. Bennie Roughton saw that power in action in October 2012, when Langevin showed up at his house in Chesapeake, Virginia. He was looking for a man named Jason Turner who lived across the street. Had he seen him? Roughton hadn’t; he was friendly enough with Turner but didn’t know him well and thought him “a little weird.”

Langevin had bailed Turner out after he and his wife stole a washing machine from a former landlady they had a gripe with. It was the kind of thing that had left Turner with a long rap sheet of petty crimes. As a condition of bail in the washing machine case, Turner had to meet regularly with his parole officer. He hadn’t shown up for the most recent one, so Langevin went to look for him.

Later that day, Roughton was out walking his dog when he saw Langevin jump out of his vehicle with his gun drawn, running toward three guys sitting in a car in the driveway of Turner’s house. “He never announced himself, he didn’t say who he was,” Roughton said. (In a police statement later on, Langevin said that he did.) The men jumped out and ran. “If you were with me and you see a guy running at you with a gun out,” Turner would later ask, “are you gonna run? I’m scared of my life.” Roughton saw Turner’s hands go up, as though in surrender, then the gun went off—”Pow!” He heard Turner shout, “Motherfucker, you shot me!”

“I wished I’d had my camera and videoed it,” Roughton said. “It was something off of Dog the Bounty Hunter, except stupid. Dog woulda never done that.”

Turner was unarmed, but Langevin shot him in the stomach. Langevin would later tell police Turner had grabbed for his gun, but in his police statement Roughton said that was not what he saw. Turner denied it too. “This is a kill shot,” Turner said when I met him, pointing to the scar across his stomach. “He didn’t shoot me in the knee, he shot me in the fucking stomach…When you shoot a deer, you shoot him in the stomach and he walks into the woods and dies and you go get him.” The bondsman kept Turner pinned to the ground until the police showed up and disarmed him. Turner went to the hospital, then to jail for missing his parole meeting. Langevin went home.
THERE HAS LONG BEEN A VIGILANTE quality to the bail system—the business itself is a creature of the Wild West. Before that, bondsmen didn’t exist. In Anglo-Saxon times, when much of our legal system was born, crimes were private affairs and suits were brought not by the state, but by one party against the other, with the wronged party typically seeking monetary compensation. Even murder cases could be settled by a fine paid to the victim’s family. In the rare case when an offender was thought to be a danger to society—usually because he was a recidivist—he was mutilated or executed. Imprisonment was considered costly and troublesome, and people were generally detained only up to the point that a family member or friend provided a pledge guaranteeing that the accused would appear in court. If the accused fled, the guarantor would pay the accuser, and the matter would be settled.

As centuries passed, crimes increasingly became the concern of the state and bail grew more complex—nowhere more so than in frontier America. The absence of close friends and extended family made it difficult to find people willing to put up bail money, especially in amounts high enough to discourage the accused from fleeing.

Out of this quandary emerged a new industry, born in the rough-and-tumble San Francisco of the late 19th century. Two brothers, Peter and Thomas McDonough, began putting up bail money as a favor to lawyers who drank at their father’s saloon, where they worked as bartenders. Once the lawyers’ clients showed up for court, the brothers got their money back.

The McDonoughs had an idea: Why not charge a fee for their service? The scheme was so successful that when their father died, they ripped out the bar and dealt solely in bail bonds. The establishment, named McDonough Bros., turned them into millionaires. The company quickly earned the moniker “Old Lady of Kearny Street” and was “without a doubt the most notorious business house in San Francisco,” according to a 1941 Time article. The Old Lady “furnished bail by the gross to bookmakers and prostitutes, kept a taxi waiting at the door to whisk them out of jail and back to work.” The article quoted a 1937 report on police misconduct that referred to the Old Lady as a “fountainhead of corruption, willing to interest itself in almost any matter designed to defeat or circumvent the law.”

By the 1940s, bail bonds nationwide were high enough that many defendants had no choice but to either pay a bondsman or sit in jail until trial. What had started as a specialty business was now an integral part of the criminal-justice system.

In 1960, a seed of doubt was sown. A businessman and a journalist visited a jail in Manhattan and became convinced that far too many people were being locked up before trial because they couldn’t afford bail. The two, Louis Schweitzer and Herbert Sturz, organized a small staff, called themselves the Vera Institute, and conducted an experiment. They interviewed thousands of defendants, asking them about past criminal records, local family ties, and employment history, assessing which defendants could be trusted to return to court without a bail bond. They provided their recommendations to judges. By the third year, their Manhattan Bail Project reported that less than 2 percent of the pretrial detainees released without bail on its recommendation were failing to appear for trial. Similar projects began to emerge in major cities across the country.

In the decade that followed, Congress passed the Bail Reform Act, restricting commercial bail in federal courts and establishing release on recognizance (i.e., for free) as the preferred form of pretrial release. Four states—Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin—followed suit. Pretrial release programs modeled on Vera also proliferated, allowing judges to release low-risk defendants. The bail bond business seemed headed for near-extinction. But soon its fortunes would reverse.
“Ed, why did you shoot me?” Turner asked Langevin as he bled through his stomach. “I thought the guy liked me,” he told me later. “This man knows my family. He knows my heart.”

Turner had met Langevin when he was his sister’s bondsman a few months earlier. When Joy Turner landed in jail for a traffic offense, several inmates told her Langevin could get her out, no money down, no need for a cosigner; “just stay with him and whatever he, you know, wants, whatever it leads to, to do.” She called him up. “I told him straight up, I said, ‘Look, I don’t have no money to give you right now, but I can promise you I’ll give you an extra $50.’ I bribed him, basically.” After she got out, she and Langevin started to date. His life was exciting for Virginia Beach. He didn’t hire bounty hunters. He did it all himself—cussing people out over the phone, chasing down skips who didn’t show up for court. Joy started riding along with him when he’d go find people. “He thinks his shit don’t stink basically—he’s higher than the law.”

Joy was a drug addict then. Langevin misused his Adderall prescription and gave some to Joy, she said. Other women he bailed out had to pay for it, she recalled. There was that one client of his who would come over to buy it, the one Joy walked in on when he had his hand up her shirt. “She was using him to get his Adderall,” she said.

When her brother needed to post bail for taking the washing machine, Joy referred him to Langevin. He seemed to like her family. He even drove her mom to the hospital once. But Joy didn’t like how he kept messing around with other women he bailed out. He was “turning into some of them other bondsmen that do the same damn thing, down there at the oceanfront. They have sex to get you out and all that other crap.”

Eventually Joy grew afraid to go for walks in her neighborhood lest she run into Langevin. “When it comes to him, I get freaked out,” she told me. First he “went psycho and went hunting for my brother.” She heard about another young woman he’d taken up with after she broke up with him, another one who couldn’t afford to pay the bond fee. Her name was Sophia.
THE PAST TWO DECADES HAVE BEEN good to the bail business—very good. Of the nearly 750,000 people in America’s jails at any given time, two-thirds are awaiting trial. Of accused felons held until case disposition, 89 percent are there because they can’t afford bail. The American Bar Association, the National Association of Counties, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association, and others have condemned commercial bail as a system that discriminates against the poor and places Americans’ liberty at the mercy of private businesses. In 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder said commercial bail was a major obstacle to reducing inflated prison populations. All other factors being equal, defendants detained pretrial are three times more likely to be sentenced to prison than someone charged with the same crime who was released before trial. One reason for such disparities is that it’s hard to mount a robust defense from behind bars, says Tim Murray, director of the Pretrial Justice Institute. People eager to get out of jail are “more prone to take plea offers,” he says.

There is no national data on the cost of holding people pending trial, but what numbers do exist suggest the total is staggering. An Oregon county estimates the cost per inmate at $234 per day. In New York, it’s $460 per day. Even if the national average were as low as $50 per day, the annual cost of pretrial detention would reach $8 billion.

“We don’t have a system currently that does a decent job of separating who is dangerous and who isn’t,” Murray says. “We only have a system that separates those who have cash and those who don’t.” The median time people charged with a felony stay in jail before their case is settled is 45 days, but some are held for much longer. In Los Angeles County, some defendants who couldn’t afford bail have been in jail, waiting for a trial, for close to six years. In Houston, some have been held for eight.

Even a few weeks in jail can wreak havoc on the lives of the accused. Seventy-one percent of jail inmates had jobs when they were arrested, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Losing those jobs because they can’t post bail leaves their families at risk. Studies also show that people become more likely to reoffend the longer they are detained pretrial: With just two to three days of detention, low-risk defendants are almost 40 percent more likely to commit new crimes before trial than equivalent defendants held less than 24 hours. Low-risk defendants held 8 to 14 days are 51 percent more likely to recidivate within two years than equivalent defendants held one day or less. “That recidivism has a toxic effect,” Murray says, “not only with regard to the individual, but to the community that will ultimately be the victim.”

At the convention in Vegas, any talk of victims was about beleaguered bail professionals. “There are people out there who are dead set on getting rid of you,” announced a slick, gray-haired man with a slow Texas drawl at the convention’s opening session, as some 200 people—some in suits, others with leather jackets and tattooed necks—listened in silence.

The speaker—Jerry Watson, the chief legal officer for Newark-based Allegheny International Association Bail Bond Surety—was referring to pretrial service programs modeled on the Manhattan Bail Project that serve roughly 10 percent of US counties. These programs gather evidence about each defendant and come up with a “risk score” to help judges determine whether they need to set bail. Those considered a low risk—as many as two-thirds—are typically released on recognizance. Many of the agencies monitor low-level defendants after they are released, helping to ensure they abide by any conditions set by the court. Eight months after New Orleans started a pretrial services program last year, its felony pretrial population dropped 22.5 percent, saving the city more than $2 million a year.

Needless to say, Watson told me, these programs are bad for the industry’s bottom line. “If [pretrial services] got 1,000 people out of jail last year, those people would have otherwise gotten out on a bail bond,” he said.

In a class I took the next day, we got some concrete advice on how to fight back. The speaker, Mike Whitlock, encouraged us to become “politically connected…backing this sheriff or that judge and contribute to the legislator in your district.” If your state didn’t allow corporate contributions, he counseled, you might want to write checks in your own name and have your company reimburse you. He didn’t mention that, in many states, this would be a violation of election law.

Contrary to what I’d assumed, Whitlock was not a bondsman. Neither was Watson or any of the other speakers I’d heard using words like “enemy” and “war” when discussing pretrial reform. They were executives of insurance companies—surety companies, more specifically.

There are many kinds of surety companies—bail is just one type—and their function is essentially to guarantee contracts between two parties. If you hire a “licensed and bonded” construction company to remodel your kitchen and it doesn’t finish the job, the surety will make you whole. With bail, the surety company guarantees the agreement between the bondsman and the state—if a defendant skips court and the bondsman neglects to pay the bail amount, the state can go to the surety company to get what it is owed. In most states, bondsmen can’t legally write bail unless they have a contract with a national surety corporation. In exchange for such a contract, the surety charges the bondsman 10 percent on each fee. So for every $1,000 bond, the bondsman gets $100 and gives $10 to the surety.

There are at least 32 surety companies that underwrite bail. When I reviewed their financial records, I found that they collectively underwrote more than $13.5 billion worth of bail bonds in 2012. Sixty percent of these bonds are controlled by members of the American Bail Coalition, a trade group to which Whitlock and Watson belong. According to an old ABC newsletter, the organization was formed when a handful of surety executives gathered in Florida in 1992. “They were worried,” the newsletter read. There was a “jihad against commercial bail…Government pretrial service agencies had made deep inroads into the corporate surety market.” Up to that point, the use of commercial bail had been steadily declining. The sureties committed to reversing the trend.

For starters, the new coalition sent letters to every single county that had a pretrial service agency. They cited data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics to claim that people released on a commercial bail bond were more likely to appear in court than those released into pretrial services programs. (The bureau said its data didn’t support that claim.) ABC also contacted sheriffs, courts, chief judges, chambers of commerce, and rotary clubs. “It kicked [pretrial services'] butt,” Watson told me. “Some of those counties began to cut back on the funding to pretrial service agencies. We began to turn the tide.”

Indeed. Before ABC began lobbying, in 1990, commercial bail accounted for just 23 percent of pretrial releases, while release on recognizance accounted for 40 percent. Today, only 23 percent of those let go before trial are released on recognizance, while 49 percent must purchase commercial bail. Since 1990, average bail amounts have almost tripled for felony cases. Between 2004 and 2012, revenues of the ABC companies whose income comes almost entirely from bail increased 21 percent.

The only other country that allows someone to make a profit off bail is the Philippines.

ABC wasn’t the only group fighting to resuscitate commercial bail. In Orleans, I visited the office of Graymond Martin, formerly a lobbyist for bail sureties operating in Louisiana. Now, he was Orleans Parish’s first assistant district attorney. He told me about the “scheme” he’d concocted to protect the industry in the early 1990s, when there was talk in the state of eliminating commercial bail. In 1993, he successfully lobbied for a law that required defendants to pay an extra 2 percent on top of their 10 percent fee to the bondsman. That money would be divided up among the sheriff’s department, the district attorney, the public defender, and the judges. “What that did,” he said proudly, “is it gave every criminal-justice player a financial interest in commercial surety.” The next time someone suggested limiting commercial bail, “then you have every judge, every DA, every sheriff, every public defender’s office saying, ‘Wait a minute, you’re taking money out of my pocket,’” he said. “The bail lobby is very powerful both locally and nationally. [Bondsmen] go to their legislators and seek provisions which are advantageous to their business model.”

It’s easy to see why: Bail surety is unique in the insurance business in that it has virtually no losses. Watson’s company, AIA Bail Bond Surety, underwrites nearly $700 million worth of bail a year. It has existed for 107 years. “You know how many checks has this company written to pay a bail loss?” Watson asked me. “Not a single one.” In other forms of insurance, the agent’s job is merely to sell policies. When you get into an accident, the company deals with it, not the agent. But with bail, it’s the agent—the bondsman—who has to pay up when a defendant fails to appear in court. The only time a surety would have to pay would be if the bondsman went out of business—and to cover those losses, bondsmen have to contribute to a special “buildup fund.”

Property and auto insurance companies typically pay out 40 to 60 percent of their revenue in losses. When I reviewed the financial records of 32 surety companies, I found that, in 2012, they cumulatively paid less than 1 percent in bail losses.


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