Behind Many ‘Mom and Pop’ Bail Bonds Shops Is a Huge Insurance Corporation Out to Profit From Misery

Eleven years ago, San Diego, California, resident Melodie Henderson was arrested for assault after a minor altercation with a former coworker. Her bail was set at $50,000. This was before a judge ever laid eyes on her.

Although she was employed, there was just no way Melodie would ever have been able to come up with the $50,000 she needed to post bail to be released while she fought her case in court. Her other option was to pay a bail bonds company a 10% nonrefundable fee, but with a $50,000 bail amount, it would be hard for her to come up with the $5,000 on her own. Of course there was third option: to sit in jail while her case moved forward, but that wasn’t an option at all. She was in her early 20s, working and going to school part time, while also taking care of her 6-year-old sister and her grandmother, who was undergoing chemotherapy. Her bail felt like punishment before she even went to trial.  

So it was her grandparents, who were on a fixed monthly income, who faced the decision to either go into debt to get Melodie released as her case moved forward or let her sit in jail, lose her job, and fight her case while she was in custody.

They decided to go through a bail bonds company to get Melodie out. The result was a financial burden no person or their family should bear: making a hefty down payment and then monthly payments to the bail bonds company — with interest. Had her and her family been wealthy and able to afford the entire $50,000 bail amount up front, things would have been much different.  They would have eventually gotten all their money back (minus some fees) from the courts. That was not the case with the bail bonds company.  

Even after her case was resolved and she completed community service and served a period of probation, her and her family’s debt to the bail bonds industry continued. Sadly, she isn’t alone.

As detailed in a report released today by Color Of Change and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, every year millions of people are locked up in jail nationwide before they even get their day in court — all because they cannot afford to post bail and buy their freedom.

Some, like Melodie, are able to pool resources together, often with the help of family members, to pay the nonrefundable 10 percent fee for-profit bail companies typically charge. This is a hardship masquerading as a tool of justice.

The report, “Selling Off Our Freedom: How Insurance Corporations Have Taken Over Our Bail System,” exposes insurance corporations’ hand in creating an unnecessary and largely unaccountable $2 billion bail industry that ensnares thousands of people in detention or debt – or both. Insurers, including corporations like Bail USA, Seneca Insurance, and United States Surety, collect around 10 percent of the premium bail agents charge families.  

Like in many states, California’s money bail system – where low to moderate-income people are unable to post money bail and have to either sit in jail or pay a bail bonds company a nonrefundable fee for their freedom – prioritizes bail insurance corporations’ profits over justice. While people are trapped in jail or debt, these conglomerates reap large benefits at low risk, all the while evading oversight.

Their evasion is purposeful. The bail bonds industry portrays itself as small, “mom and pop” bail bonds agencies that secure release from jail for a nonrefundable fee. In reality, multinational insurance corporations dominate the industry, underwriting each bond. In fact, fewer than 10 large insurers underwrite a majority of the approximately $14 billion in bail bonds issued in the United States each year. This money bail system allows corporate insurers to operate with little risk, meaning the industry profits even when its customers do not show up for court. It is a win-win for them. It is a lose-lose for justice.

People like Melodie spend years trying to pay back the bail bonds company to get back on track. They are forced to put their lives on hold, let bills go unpaid, and take severe hits to their credit. Many are people already struggling to make ends meet, and many are people of color.

This is not a system of justice. It is a system of corporate greed that negatively impacts millions of people, especially low-income families and communities of color.

Now 32 years old, Melodie is a small business owner, mother, and caretaker of her two younger sisters. The road for her was long and difficult. Yet her story could have been much different if she hadn’t been expected to buy her freedom. She hopes people understand that California’s current money bail system doesn’t promote justice and public safety but rather injustice and harm to the people, families, and communities ensnared by it.  

Fortunately, California lawmakers introduced The California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017 (AB 42 and SB 10), two identical bills that will truly protect the wellbeing and safety of communities. The bills will reduce the number of people locked up because they are unable to pay to get out of jail while their cases move forward. The bills will also prioritize services to help people make their court appearances and curb the state’s overreliance on the current money bail system. They build upon commonsense solutions adopted in other jurisdictions that have significantly reduced their use of commercial bail, such as Kentucky; Santa Clara, California; and Washington, D.C.

California needs to pass this legislation in the name of justice. And the rest of the nation should follow suit with similar state-based legislation that puts the economic security, wellbeing, and safety of our communities before bail insurance companies’ profits. We need to create a system of justice that works for everyone.  

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Anonymous

Well, how do you expect California to pay for all the free shit unless they have more and more fees and more and more ways of keeping people in the system?

Anonymous

suggest that you read the entire article.....hope this helps

Anonymous

Perhaps you should reread the posting. California doesn't get the money, large insurance companies do. And then there's the fact that both the CA Assembly and Senate have proposed legislation to end the egregious abuse of money bail. Facts are important.

Bail Bonds are good

The purpose of bail is to make it hard for suspected criminals to get out of jail and subsequently skip court. Judges can set bail, usually, as they see fit. High risk criminals have higher bails.

Bail bond users should be happy that the industry is not banned, otherwise they would sit in jail until hearings. So the choice is either pay the bail and get out, or not.

No I'm sorry bail bond companies charge for their service. If they didn't they wouldn't make any money and thus not be in business, leading to you sitting in jail until your family raises the bond. Think about it, regulate bail bonds and more people sit in jail!

Bondsman

I agree with your comments about no bond, no freedom. I own a bail agency and have served thousands of clients. I think the claims of abuse are warranted but not all true. I charge a flat 10% for bonds I accept. Yes accept, I don't have to accept any bond, so I don't service "high risk" bonds. These bonds often get booted to bond companies that charge much higher percentages. Many then sell their bonds to a third party.

I'm not against a flat percentage "law" that makes bondsmen loan at the same rate. But are you also going to require credit card companies charge a universal flat rate? Or car dealerships? Point is they are voluntarily borrowing money at whatever rate they agree too. Predatory loans are not really pretadory, I didn't ask them to borrow money from me! They come to me, I can charge what I want or don't come. Luckily I only charge 10%, but skip and I will spend 10 times that to put someone in jail. No doubt!

Anonymous

Replace "suspected criminals" with "innocent people" and your cruel motivation comes clear.

Logical

"Accused Criminals" have been arrested based on something called "probable cause". It means that a law enforcement officer had enough evidence to detain and arrest a suspect. The concept of "innocent until proven guilty", which the anti-bail advocates like to use all the time is reserved for the courtroom. As the Association of California Judges recently wrote in their OPPOSITION to AB42 and SB10 letter, "While the presumption of innocence is at the heart of our criminal justice system, it's a concept that applies at trial, not in the context of rulings on bail." Furthermore, the US and California Supreme Courts have both maintained that the presumption of innocence "has no application to a determination of the rights of a pretrial detainee during confinement before his trial has even begun." Before you criticize and denigrate the people taking the time to comment on your misguided and misrepresenting blog post, it is good to know the facts.

I am also really interested why the ACLU would be advocating for thousands of minority and women owned businesses to be put out of business. These so called "mom and pop" bail shops are comprised mostly of multi generational, minority and women owned. They will ultimately become the victims in this fight.

Lastly, I am trying to figure out why the ACLU would support doing away with all of these mom and pop shops that work closely with the families in their communities and instead advocate for replacing them with government run computer algorithms that can't be questioned. Also, why would the ACLU support putting any sort of condition on a pretrial detainee when they have not been convicted of a crime. Isn't forcing a defendant to wear an ankle monitor or blow into an alcohol monitor before they have been convicted of a crime the real violation here. More technology and more government control over the pretrial process does not mean more equality and liberty...it actually translates into less. It is time for the ACLU and its supporters to truly take a look in the mirror and rethink their position on this issue. I think they very well might be on the wrong side of the public good on this one.

Anonymous

So many lies in this article smh. The only people sitting in jail are the high risk offenders and the people who have burned their bridges with their family and friends and nobody wants to help them get out. On a 50,000 bond a bail agent will take as low as a 100 dollars down with 0 INTEREST 100 a month payments. And the mom and pop bail office keeps the lion share of the premium not the insurance company. The money collected by bail agents is not all profit it is used to keep track of all defendants out on bond, bail agents take huge risk and losses. Bail agents are a huge part of the justice system, they don't just get people out they supervise and guarantee the persons appearances in court so that justice may be served. When a person on bail skips court it is the responsibility of the bail agent to return that person to custody at no charge to tax payers. Please do your research before spreading false information. Also judges already have the power to reduce bail amounts and even let people out on a promise to come back to court on their own.

Anonymous

Of that $5,000 premium, do you know how much that large insurance company likely retained? -- just $500. The "mom and pop" agency likely kept the balance ($4,500).

Anonymous

OF THAT 5,000 PREMIUM, do you know who ends up paying the 50,000.00 when the defendant doesn't show up? The Mom and Pa Bail Agencies. Who profits from the 50K, the courts and the county does. Let's get numbers on how much a court collects on forfeit bonds that have to get paid out, because the bail bond agency took the risk. MILLIONS MILLIONS!! How do you think criminal court gets money, and that is probably why they put the high amounts of bail, because in the end the Mom and Pop Agency takes the risk and pays it out.
KNOW THE FULL SYSTEM BEFORE YOU BELIEVE THIS ARTICLE!!

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