As I read this piece by Adam Liptak in the New York Times, I wondered to myself, “had Liptak ever met a bail bondsman in the Bronx?” The story carries a dateline from Fort Lauderdale, Florida (where all good New York journalism comes from in the winter), and Liptak describes the bondsman’s office has looking like a dentists’ office.
I’ve been to the office of dentists and bondsmen. They didn’t look anything alike.
There is no scuzzier business on the face of the earth than bail bondsman. I represent one. I have one bondsman that I trust and to whom I send clients when they need one. But there is nothing recognizable in Liptak’s description to my experience with bondsmen.
It’s a business of misery. People go there in desperation, a loved one arrested and held in jail. Usually, they are poor and can’t post bail for the release. They are treated like scum. They take it because they have no choice; they need the bondsman at that moment far more than the bondsman needs them.
The story makes it sound as if this is a business with rules. While bondsman are nothing more than insurance brokers issuing insurance policies on the return of a defendant to court, there is no feeling that you’re in “good hands.” Forget this nonsense about a 10% fee. They demand whatever collateral they can get, even if you’re the best flight risk in town. They never want to be left holding the bag, and they are not doing this for love. This is a cold, hard business, and the bondsman intends to win every deal.
The fee they charge, regardless of guilt or innocence, regardless of flight or return, is a shady matter. When I send a client to my trusted bondsman, I make sure that there is no over-reaching on the fee nor collateral. It’s part of my job as their lawyer. But when people come who have already been to the bondsman, I’m shocked to learn of gross overcharging, with outrageous fees paid up front. But then, they wanted to get their loved one out and that was all the money they had in the world.
As Jeralyn from TalkLeft comments, it’s a system that discriminates against the poor, and indeed it does. People with money post bail directly. In New York, they lose 3% to the State if the defendant is convicted. Call it a “convenience fee,” since it’s convenient for the state to take money from people who everybody hates.
People who don’t have the funds to post bail directly has no choice but to go to the bail bondsman, and pay whatever they extort. Fees of 25%, 50%, are common but unspoken. It’s flagrantly illegal, but who’s going to complain? It’s cash that goes directly into the pocket, and there’s no proof it ever happened.
Even in the sanitized world of bail bondsmen that Liptak writes about, the business is despised and rejected. It’s an American invention, but four states have outlawed it.
“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.”
There’s nothing more American than free enterprise, even when it comes to freedom. But the problem is that the consumers of bond services have no other option. Either the defendant stays in jail or they pay the bondsman.
Why can’t people put up 10% of the bond, the amount they would theoretically pay the bondsman for his fee, to the court and get the defendant out? Many people who lack experience with the New York system think this is how it works. It could be, though this would produce an anomaly, since a judge has already decided that a particular number is warranted to assure the defendant’s return to court. If the family only had to post 10% of that amount, then the judge would simply increase the bail amount to compensate, putting equally out of reach.
And nowhere in Liptak’s story is there any mention of the dark side of the bail bondsman’s trade, the bounty hunter. He’s the fellow who comes after the defendant who doesn’t return to court, the guy who costs the bondsman money. Talk about lawlessness, there’s nothing meaner than a bondsman who gets beat and has to pay his “hard earned” money to the court.
Like I said, bail bonding is one scuzzy business.