“Bondsmen are a lower life form — they sap money from people,” retired Alabama Sheriff Larry Amerson said at a recent criminal justice conference on the rural jail crisis.
What the industry does have going for it is a powerful PAC to protect its interests in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. Today there are about 15,000 bail bond agents working in the United States, writing bonds for about $14 billion annually, according to the Justice Policy Institute.
According to its own website, the North Carolina Bail Agents Association came about as a result of the unfair treatment bondsmen were receiving in the state, especially in regard to forfeitures. Before NCBAA forfeitures were only set aside if the defendants appearance in court was impossible or if the failure to appear wasn’t the defendants fault. As a result, bondsmen were forced to pay a lot of money out of pocket.
The Department of Insurance regulates bondsmen according to the laws on the books — the problem according to the NCBAA was that the laws were weak or outdated. Without specific language, the DOI regulated based on its opinion or policies.
“Because of the hostile bail environment at that time, there were very few bondsmen in N.C.,” the NCBAA states. “The bondsman’s fate in paying forfeitures hung on the ruling of the judge, and there was never a guarantee of a forfeiture set aside, not even if the bondsman had surrendered the defendant.”
Bondsmen were at the mercy of the court and had no statewide organization to work on their behalf — therefore the NCBAA was formed in 1992 with the mission of bettering laws for setting forfeitures aside and bettering laws to improve working conditions for all bondmen in North Carolina.
In 1994, the NCBAA was able to get laws passed requiring pre-licensing for those who wanted a bail bond license and continuing education for all bondsmen. The tuition for those classes provided NCBAA the funding it needed to work toward its other legislative goals. Members also pay annual dues that help the association continue to lobby the legislature for new laws.
“The success of the N.C. bondsmen in funding the NCBAA has hit the mark again and again each year, now with over 60 bail bond laws helping N.C. bondsmen make and save more money and protect their livelihood,” NCBAA states.
So how does the association counter the growing number of arguments against the practice of issuing bail bonds? Its stance is that the industry provides the only pretrial release program that doesn’t cost the state taxpayers.
“If the state spends approximately $65.90 per day to house an inmate, given the number of inmates released into the custody of bail agents, we save the state over $1 billion a year,” the association website claims. “No other pretrial release system can provide these savings.”
Bondsmen also provide a court appearance system because bail agents have the authority to apprehend and arrest the people they have posted bail for and therefore offer an additional arrest force of about 1,700 people. According to the association, bail agents arrest and surrender 98 percent of their failures to appear at no cost to the taxpayer.
However, if someone is arrested for failure to appear, they return to jail until their next court date and taxpayers are again footing the bill for their stay plus the cost of medical services. Bail bond opponents claim a system of reminding people of their court dates could result in fewer failures to appear and cut down on jail costs without placing undue financial burden on people who haven’t been convicted.
A report from the Justice Policy Institute states that the for-profit bond industry is not providing an effective pretrial service because a person’s risk is only assessed by their ability to pay and not factors like prior criminal records, substance abuse history and the severity of the alleged crime.
“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,” the report found. “This has contributed to dangerously high jail populations, with a national average of 60 percent of people in jail awaiting their day in court.”
The for-profit bail industry denies its impact on pretrial jail populations.
“The fact is that the only people in pretrial detention today who can’t afford a commercial bail bond are, one, pure transients or two, persons who are so extremely recalcitrant that they have burned every bridge with family and community. And these persons, if released, are almost certain to flee, and therefore no responsible judicial officer would allow them released in any case,” said Jerry Watson, an expert in the commercial bail bond industry.
It’s not just social and criminal justice reform organizations calling for the removal of the bail bond practice. The American Bar Association has also taken a stand against it — “Their role is neither appropriate nor necessary and the recommendation that they be abolished is without qualification.”
The full report from Justice Policy Institute can be found at justicepolicy.org/research/4388.
The Smoky Mountain News has reached out to several bail bondsmen and the NCBAA for an interview to discuss the industry but have not heard back from them. NCBAA Executive Director Melissa Seiler asked SMN to submit questions via email but never responded with answers.