Today, most people accused of committing a felony have to post bail in order to avoid jail time, according to a report from the Color of Change and the ACLU. Low-income communities of color are the ones hit hardest by bail.
Nearly 450,000 people that are in jail have not been convicted of a crime — that's approximately 70% of all the people in jail. Unaffordable bail keeps these people locked up in jail long before they're ever found guilty of a crime. Even if bail is paid, high fees and installment payments keep these people trapped in the criminal justice system — benefiting not only the bail bond agents, but the insurance companies that back them.
If mass incarceration is to be stopped, the first step has to be the end of the for-profit bail bond industry. Here's what you need to know.
Bail Bonds 101
When someone is arrested for a crime, judges set a bail. Often, bail is set much higher than what someone can afford, and that's when bail bonds come into play. The family members and friends of the person in jail visit their local bail bond company and put down a nonrefundable fee of 10 percent (or more) of the full bail amount.
If, for example, the bail is set at $50,000, the fee would be $5000 upfront. Families then co-sign a contract with the bail bond industry, guaranteeing to the agent that they are responsible for paying the full bail amount if the person in jail doesn't appear in court or breaks the terms in the contract. Typically family members put up their property (cars, homes, etc.) as collateral. Once the 10% is paid, the bail bond agent files a bond with the court in order to release the person from jail.
How Insurance Companies Benefit From This
Behind every bail bond storefront are insurance companies that profit from every single bail bond transaction. The top 9 bail insurers in the country make an estimated $14 billion from the bail bond industry every year. Many of these bail insurers are owned by companies operating overseas — the biggest being Japanese-owned Tokio Marine, which is worth a whopping $40 billion.
Bail insurance companies place the responsibility of losses not on themselves, but on the bail bond agents, who then in turn place the responsibility on the families. It's a low-risk reward that pays handsomely for bail insurance companies.
Why This Is Bad
The growth of these lucrative money bails has played an indirect role in the increase of mass incarceration, which disproportionately targets low-income black and color communities. Higher bonds make it difficult for innocent people to get out of jail.
Research in New York City found that when people remained in jail while awaiting trial, the likelihood of conviction went up from 50% to 92%. Many times the difficulty of being in jail and not being able to afford bail becomes an incentive to plead guilty even if the person is innocent.
The impact of not being able to make bail can even lead to death. 28-year old Sandra Bland, who couldn't afford to pay $515 to a bail bond agent, ended up dying while incarcerated after a traffic stop back in 2015.
At Stein, Lotzkar & Starr, P.S., we provide quality criminal defense and legal representation to help clients achieve the best possible outcome. We have over a hundred years of collective experience and we are ready to help you—whether you're dealing with a DUI, drug crime, violation of court orders, or assault.