Criminal Justice

Bail-Bonds Industry Under Microscope in California

Legislature wants to reduce number of people held in pretrial detention.


At a press conference in the Capitol on Monday morning, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) explained that although he has long championed various reforms to the state's criminal-justice system, he had in the past rarely even thought about the "money bail" system by which criminal defendants are released from jail after posting a bond.

Indeed, the system is so ubiquitous—bail-bonds offices cluster around courthouses—that it's just an accepted part of the system. Yet that could all be changing. As I reported last month, reforming the state's bail system will be a top priority as legislators return to the Capitol. Sure enough, the press conference was held shortly before the new session came to order and included several prominent Democratic legislators.

After an arrest, a judge will typically set a bail amount based on the seriousness of the alleged crime and on the defendant's perceived flight risk. The defendant can post the full amount or pay a bondsman 10 percent of the bail, which is nonrefundable. The bail company assumes the financial risk if the defendant is a "no show." The bond is meant to provide a strong financial incentive for the defendant to show up at the appointed court date.

But Newsom and the assembled legislators argued that the current system is antiquated and unfair—the "modern equivalent of debtors' prison," as sponsors of a reform bill put it. "We punish poor people literally for being poor," argued Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland. "In many cases, if you have enough money to pay your bail, you can get out of jail regardless of whether you are a danger to the public or a flight risk."

And the converse is true, supporters say: Those who are poor but pose little danger or flight risk must stay in jail until the wheels of justice turn. They often turn slowly, which means people in tough financial straits risk losing their job, their home and their car as they languish in a jail cell. A single parent risks losing his or her children to Child Protective Services. It's a tough burden for those who have not been found guilty of a crime.

It's the first day of session, so the legislation includes intent language: "It is the intent of the Legislature to enact legislation to safely reduce the number of people detained pretrial, while addressing racial and economic disparities in the pretrial system, to ensure that people are not held in pretrial detention simply because of their inability to afford money bail."

Legislators say their intent is to "reform" the system, but it appears the ultimate intent is to move to a risk-based system of the type embraced by the federal government and some local jurisdictions such as Washington, D.C. In other words, details are still hazy, and the bail-bonds industry has plenty of time to gear up for what could pose an existential threat.

The industry has argued that it offers an economical system that minimizes the costs to the court system. That's because bond companies privately assure—without extensive court monitoring—that defendants show up for their trial. But critics argue that far more people remain in jail than would be the case with a risk-based assessment—and that the jail costs (around $100 a day in California) counteract any other savings.

The California legislation is part of a nationwide movement by civil-rights and civil-liberties groups to change the pretrial system across the country. The focus is less on cost savings than on justice-related issues. As a 2013 research paper from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation explained, "A study, using data from state courts, found that defendants who were detained for the entire pretrial period were over four times more likely to be sentenced to jail and over three times more likely to be sentenced to prison than defendants who were released at some point pending trial."

The reason? Those in jail awaiting trial are "more likely to cop a plea," said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Van Nuys Democrat and co-author of the legislation. If a defendant is in jail awaiting trial, and faces the prospect of losing everything he or she owns, then there's intense pressure to do something—anything—to get out. An arrest doesn't mean guilt, so a person out on bail can continue life as usual while the process plays out. Hertzberg's office notes that "63 percent of inmates in county jails are awaiting trial or sentencing."

The American Civil Liberties Union pointed to racial disparities. "Nationally, bond amounts for African-American men are 35 percent higher than bond amounts for white men," according to an ACLU fact sheet handed out at the press conference. "Latino men's bond amounts are 19 percent higher than the amounts for white men." One woman who spoke at the event talked about a relative's situation. To her family, the $5,000 bond amount might as well have been $10 million, she said, given her family's lack of resources to pay it.

The bail-bonds industry points to a U.S. District Court decision in October that slaps down the due-process criticisms made by bail reformers. "The state's interest in ensuring criminal defendants appear for trial dates is a legitimate one, and detaining individuals before their arraignment is rationally related to that legitimate interest," ruled Judge Troy Nunley.

Furthermore, the industry-backed American Bail Coalition argues that "surety bail outperforms every form of public sector pretrial release and own recognizance release as well." In a July article, the Washington Post evaluated the District of Columbia's pretrial system, which uses risk assessments rather than bail. It interviewed those who found the system to be a success, but also pointed to a couple of "high-profile lapses," including an incident where "a man released from court on a misdemeanor charge of assaulting a police officer was charged in a fatal stabbing two days later on a Metro train."

Bail reformers point to cases of people who have been killed or committed suicide while in pretrial detention. The Arnold Foundation report pointed to a study showing "that low-risk defendants who were detained pretrial for more than 24 hours were more likely to commit new crimes not only while their cases were pending, but also years later."

This obviously is a complicated issue, and the stakes are high given that people's lives are in the balance. It's particularly germane in California, given that the state's historic realignment—moving state prisoners to local jails, to conform to a federal prison overcrowding order—puts an increasing premium on jail space. This much seems likely: More Californians will be thinking about the bail-bonds system as the new session gets underway.

This column first appeared in


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  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the federal “risk-based” system provides a hearing, before the actual trial, in which the judge can deny bail altogether if the defendant is deemed dangerous. Isn’t that the case?

    Didn’t they do that with the Asian-American guy who was charged with espionage and who ultimately got cleared on most (all?) charges?

  2. Since this is California, the real problem is that bail bond companies make money. That is proof enough that the system must change, regardless of the number of people released.

  3. I posted this link the other day about the process being the punishment.

    It’s the way the system works for poor people getting hassled over BS stuff – take a plea and you’ll get time served and you can go home. Don’t take the plea and you’ll sit in jail 6, 8, 10 months awaiting trial – and if it’s a BS charge there’s a good chance we’ll just wait until the last minute to drop the charges anyways.

  4. I’ve never had to post bail so have a question. If charges are dismissed, does alleged perp get the 10% back?
    I’d imagine not – so maybe a real reform would be to have the government (i.e. taxpayers) reimburse the not-guilty person. That might cut down on unreasonable bail and unreasonable charges.

    1. no, the 10% is not given back. great point.

      1. and of course it shouldn’t. It’s no different than insurance. if you buy an insurance policy and never get sick do you get the money back? no

        The money you pay covers the costs the bail bond company has when a person absconds and they have to track him down and bring him to jail or else lose the 90% they put up to bond him out.

        a little known procedure that sometimes happens is bondsmen will do a “discharge of sureties” arrest – if they get word a person is going to run etc. they will go and arrest the bonded individual and return him to jail BEFORE he has a chance to run.

        1. It is nothing like insurance. You either pay 10% or 100% to get out. You are screwed whether you are innocent or guilty.

          1. At least in the case of 100% you’ll get it back.

  5. There is a causality assumed in this article about people who can’t pay bail vs. people who can, assumed that it’s the incarceration that results in the worse outcomes not considering ceteris paribus people who can’t pay bail are more likely to be irresponsible/type of people who make bad choices in general/have poor impulse control.

    People who make bad choices in general/have poor impulse control/aren’t thinking about future but only the present are more likely to not have the means to pay bail.. Bail bondsmen accept all sorts of things as collateral and also allow other people to used their collateral for the bonded person. So, if you are 30 and have no ASSETS to put up as collateral or relative/friends willing to put up their assets/vouch for you, what does that say about the choices you’ve made in life? Sure, again, some people are destitute through no fault of their own. But a lifetime of living beyond your means, failing to prepare for future lean times… has consequences


    obviously, there are exceptions- bad shit happens to good people etc. but IN GENERAL our system is a meritocracy and people who act responsibly and who sacrifice in the present for future goals, tend to do better. Disparate impact theory is implied here – it has a disparate impact on one group vs. the other therefore it discriminates against one group

    1. I work with bail bondsmen and bail recovery agents (bounty hunters) and they do a GREAT job on the whole, and with ZERO taxpayer expense. Oregon btw, makes it illegal for bail recovery agents to operate at all, not mentioned in the article.

      Sure, reforms can be made, but on the whole, the bail bond system is remarkably effective and at no cost to the public

      Friend of mine started a bail bond company upon retirning as a cop, and it’s a really cool business to get into.

    2. “I received a small loan of a million dollars.


  6. til I looked at the receipt four $6371, I didnt believe that…my… mom in-law could trully receiving money in there spare time at their computer.. there friends cousin has done this for under 15 months and as of now paid the morgage on their mini mansion and got a new Infiniti. navigate to this site


  7. my friend’s ex-wife makes $79/hour on the internet. She has been unemployed for five months but last month her payment was $13079 just working on the internet for a few hours. check


  8. Brianna. true that Kathryn`s st0rry is impressive… I just received themselves a Jaguar E-type from bringing in $5324 recently and-over, ten-k this past-munth. it’s definitly the coolest work Ive ever done. I started this 3 months ago and straight away started to bring home minimum $81.. per/hr. straight from the source


  9. Liam. I agree that Carl`s bl0g is cool… I just got a great new Honda since getting a cheque for $9458 thiss month and just a little over 10/k this past-munth. without a doubt its the most financially rewarding I’ve ever had. I started this six months/ago and almost immediately started earning at least $75, per hour. go now


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