Bail me out

If you drive past your local jail or courthouse, chances are you’ll find a cluster of similar businesses nearby: bail bondsmen. Some of the ones in my county have rather fanciful names: Bad Moon. Bad Boys. Aladdin. Redemption. Underdogg. And my personal favorite, ABBA. I’m wondering whether the last one assists people who snapped after overdosing on 1970s Swedish pop music, and I’m hoping they perform their services with an appropriate soundtrack.

Last week I wrote about bail in general; this week, let’s talk about bail bondsmen.

I’m going to begin with a warning to—as usual—be aware of the rules in your jurisdiction. A few states have banned bail bondsmen altogether because the practice discriminates against poorer defendants.

The basic operations of bail bondsmen are fairly simple. Let’s suppose Wanda has been charged with arson of an inhabited structure. She’s facing some serious prison time, so to make sure Wanda doesn’t wander—and fail to show up for trial—her bail amount will probably be high. In California, the presumptive amount may be $250,000. Now, few of us have a quarter million dollars sitting around, and Wanda’s no exception. So what can she do to keep from languishing in jail while waiting for trial? Go to a bail bondsman, of course.

What’s going to happen is Wanda (or her friends or family members) will pay the bondsman 10% of her bail amount (this percentage varies, but 10% is most common). In return, the bondsman will post a bond with the court, ensuring Wanda’s appearance at trial. If Wanda shows up, great, although she’s still going to be out that $25,000 because that’s the bondsman’s fee for services. That’s true even if she’s eventually found not guilty. If Wanda flees, the bondsman will have to pay the court the full $250,000. Naturally, he’s not going to be happy about that. He’ll either hunt down Wanda himself or hire a bounty hunter to do so, and if they eventually capture Wanda and drag her back to jail, the bondsman will get his money back.

In theory, bail bondsmen are a good idea because they help lower income people stay out of jail while awaiting trial. In practice, though, the process means poor people—even innocent ones—are going to have to pay to remain free, while wealthier defendants who can afford their own bail won’t pay anything in the long run because they’ll eventually get the full amount of their bail back. For this reason, a few states have banned bail bondsmen and instead permit defendants to post 10% of their bail directly to the court. If those defendants show up, they’ll get all the money back. If they abscond, they lose the 10% and become liable for the full amount of their bail.

Who can become a bail bondsman? Many states have no training requirements. Generally, the primary requirement is that the bondsman be licensed as a small business. Other states have rules about criminal history, education, and other criteria.

I think the bail bondsmen’s potential as plot fodder is underappreciated. If you want to watch a movie that made good use of this idea, consider Midnight Run.

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