Apparently, New York is having a problem in collecting bail bond forfeitures.
A couple years ago the they had a good article on the internationally unusual nature of our system:
“It’s a very American invention,” John Goldkamp, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, said of the commercial bail bond system. “It’s really the only place in the criminal justice system where a liberty decision is governed by a profit-making businessman who will or will not take your business.”
Although the system is remarkably effective at what it does, four states — Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin — have abolished commercial bail bonds, relying instead on systems that require deposits to courts instead of payments to private businesses, or that simply trust defendants to return for trial.
Most of the legal establishment, including the American Bar Association and the National District Attorneys Association, hates the bail bond business, saying it discriminates against poor and middle-class defendants, does nothing for public safety, and usurps decisions that ought to be made by the justice system.
Here as in many other areas of the law, the United States goes it alone. American law is, by international standards, a series of innovations and exceptions. From the central role played by juries in civil cases to the election of judges to punitive damages to the disproportionate number of people in prison, the United States has charted a distinctive and idiosyncratic legal path.
It seems to me that the question of whether it discriminates against the poor and middle-class is if this innovation has resulted in requirements for higher bails since the judges know that bondsmen will put it up. If so, it causes a price spiral that discriminates against defendants the same way that they would be discriminated against if they had to put the money up themselves. But if that’s not demonstrably the case, it seems like it would help them by allowing them to get out of jail (or get their loved ones out of jail) in ways that they wouldn’t be able to, otherwise. It’s not unlike those paycheck loan places, except reserved more for a rather specific emergency.
Wilson Quarterly has a good (and more sympathetic) look at the industry:
Most people don’t realize how many fugitives from the law there are. About one-quarter of all felony defendants fail to show up on the day of their trial. Some of these absences are due to forgetfulness, hospitalization, or even imprisonment on another charge. But like Luster, many felony defendants skip court with willful intent. The police are charged with recapturing these fugitives, but some of them are chased by an even more tireless pursuer, the bounty hunter.
Bounty hunters and bail bondsmen play an important but unsung role in a legal system whose court dockets are too crowded to provide swift justice. When a suspect is arrested, a judge must make a decision: set the suspect free on his own recognizance until the court is ready to proceed, hold the suspect in jail, or release the accused on the condition that he post a bail bond. A bond is a promise backed by incentive. If the suspect shows up on the trial date, he gets his money back; but if he fails to show, the money is forfeited. We don’t want to deprive the innocent of their liberty, but we also don’t want to give the guilty too much of a head start on their escape. Bail bonds don’t solve this problem completely, but they do give judges an additional tool to help them navigate the dilemma.
Bail might be a rich man’s privilege were it not for the bail bondsman. (Many bondsmen are women, but “bondsperson” doesn’t have quite the same ring, so I’ll use the standard terminology.) In return for a non-refundable fee, usually around 10 percent of the bond, a bondsman will put up his own money with the court. A typical bond might run $6,000. If the defendant shows up, the bondsman earns $600. But if the defendant flees, the bondsman potentially can forfeit $6,000. Potentially, because when a fugitive fails to appear, the court gives the bondsman a notice that essentially says, “Bring your charge to justice soon or your money is mine.” A bondsman typically has 90 to 180 days to bring a fugitive back to justice, so when a defendant jumps bail, the bondsman lets the dogs loose.
In addition to (perhaps) helping people afford to get out of jail when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, this strikes me as a rather helpful sort of outsourcing. Hunting low-level fugitives is something that it’s rarely going to be worthwhile to do, from a financial standpoint. But we create a system that makes it worthwhile… to somebody.
Freakonomics also has a podcast/article on the topic.
UPDATE: Another interesting article on the subject from Las Vegas, where Bail Bondsmen are upset at Marshals, who are allegedly illegally offering bonds.