Big Corporations Make Millions by Selling People a Chance to Get Out of Jail

If you got arrested, could you come up with the bail needed to buy your immediate freedom?

For most people, the answer is no. Even though those arrested haven’t been convicted of a crime, the only way for them to get out of jail while they await their day in court is to come up with an alternative source of money. Enter big insurance companies like Lexington National. They’ll get you out, but you have to pay them a fee that you’ll never get back, which guarantees them a hefty profit regardless of the outcome of the case.

If you think this is corporate greed run amok, you aren’t alone. The legal right to turn a profit on bail is a rare phenomenon globally: It's only legal in the U.S. and the Philippines. And for good reason.

After all, the people accused of a crime — and their families desperate to have them home — are hardly in a position to bargain. Since they run the risk of losing their job or home, the accused are at the mercy of bail bond companies, which have a huge amount of leverage over people who sign their exploitative contracts. That’s why bail contracts often contain terms like installment plans and high interest rates that lead to years of debt.

These contracts might even allow a bail bond agent to return a person to jail simply because their collateral loses value — after, for example, a car crash or a house fire — or because they got a new phone number without immediately notifying the insurance agent. These contracts often also allow bond companies to follow their “clients” and to demand detailed information about their lives — like where they go, who they see, and when they get a new job — or to search their family’s property at any time without notice or a warrant.

And no matter what happens, the person who entered into a bail bond contract — often a mom, wife, sister, or other female family member — is on the hook to pay. Even if a person does everything he is required to, and even if he is eventually found not guilty, he’s paying the company’s fee.

These “bail sharks” have a pretty sweet deal, altogether raking in about $2 billion a year. And because these companies are so profitable, they are able to pour money into state-level candidates, committees, parties, and ballot measures to push back against the growing national momentum for bail reform. For example, Lexington National is working in states across the country to fight reforms that threaten their profits. They even went so far as to sue New Jersey after the state overhauled its money bail system.

Last year, the Garden State moved to a system that no longer relies so heavily on money bail. Before the change, it was common for people who could not afford to pay bail to be jailed awaiting trial for months. The average wait was a whopping 10 months.

Courts in the state now rarely set money bail, instead allowing most people to return home. The number of people locked up in the state’s jails awaiting trial has plummeted, and people are showing up to court as required. Reform is working for the people of New Jersey.

Lexington National isn’t so pleased, however. They are suing the state to bring back money bail. It’s not hard to guess why. Lexington National filed suit, arguing that there is a constitutional right to money bail. They do not argue that more people should be released before trial. Rather, they contend that people should have the right to pay cash bail to secure their release. Put simply, Lexington National wants to preserve the bail system to protect its bottom line.

New Jersey provides an example of a successful alternative to relying so heavily on money bail. That threatens the industry’s profits, not just there, but in all the other states considering making the same move away from money bail.

Litigation isn’t the only way Lexington National tries to subvert bail reform.

In Maryland, the company donated thousands of dollars since 2011 to the chairs of legislative committees that oversee legislation that would impact the state’s bail bond industry as well as other legislators during the election cycle. In 2014, it contributed to a failed campaign effort in California to keep penalties — and therefore bail amounts — high for low-level property and drug crimes. These investments give Lexington the opportunity to try to exert their influence over lawmakers who are actively considering reforms to the bail system.

And when they win, communities of color lose. Companies like Lexington National prey upon communities already targeted by the criminal justice system. Black people are more likely to be arrested because of over-policing, more likely to be assigned cash bail than white people arrested for similar crimes, and more likely to have a higher bail amount set.

Because cash bail disproportionately impacts Black communities, bail bond companies exert a huge amount of influence over their freedom and sap community resources. In 2015, for example, approximately 4,900 families in New Orleans paid $4.7 million in nonrefundable premiums to for-profit bail companies like Lexington National. Eighty-four percent of the bail premiums and associated fees were paid by Black residents.

We’ll continue to regularly highlight bail sharks like Lexington National to emphasize just how broken our money bail system really is. If the same companies that profit off of the status quo are influencing the lawmakers who could pass meaningful reforms, our bail system will continue to exploit vulnerable communities, especially communities of color, and fuel mass incarceration.

In 2018, states across the country will consider pursuing meaningful reforms to their money bail system. But by shining a light on the predatory activities of bail sharks, we have a chance to fight back and secure the smart justice reforms our country deserves.

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Anonymous

Good article. Would be great if it was 100% truthful. New Jersey is a good example...of how bail reform really works. Crime rate increased substantially. Read the crime reports from New Jersey. They paint a different picture than this article portrays. I have a letter from a New Jersey legislator sent to The District Attorneys Assoc of California urging legislators of California not to make the same mistake New Jersey made.
I haven't found a bail company that charges interest.
Bail Agents CANNOT revoke a bond for monetary reasons. To do so would be a crime.
As for donations, the ACLU and George Soros are the biggest contributors of donations to legislators. Their contributions go to paying people to protest as well. I feel the bail industry is beating the ACLU at their own game.
Please reveal all documentation that supports your claims. Then I will do the same. You will find your claims don't hold water or not entirely true.

Dr. Timothy Leary

They pay people to protest? Where do I sign up?

Dan callahan

Couldn’t read past the second sentence - have to assume the rest of the hit piece is also complete BS. “Most people” can’t come up with bail money for freedom. Really? What planet do you people live on?

Dan callahan

Couldn’t read past the second sentence - have to assume the rest of the hit piece is also complete BS. “Most people” can’t come up with bail money for freedom. Really? What planet do you people live on?

Anonymous

Many years ago NPR radio did a story essentially about "Good GDP vs. Bad GDP".

The point of the radio report was to show that a nation could support "morally bankrupt" practices and it still makes the Gross Domestic Product or GDP look healthy. The show suggested in order to avoid gaming the system like this, which misleads American consumers - we should distinguish Good GDP vs. Bad GDP.

For example: Good GDP which benefits the nation is construction, education, hospitals, etc.

Bad GDP which harms the nation are things like private prisons, bail bondsmen, etc.

A real life example would be Detroit or more recently Puerto Rico that once relied prinarily on Good GDP. After these places were abandoned by government leaders, the collapse of their economies and job base switched to Bad GDP. Puerto Ricans are suffering emergency level foreclosure crisis and many are still without electricity or clean drinking water.

Just because an industry is profitable doesn't make it beneficial to the American economy. Why should such an "Bad GDP" industry be able to lobby legislators to prey on more Americans?

Anonymous

Excellent post. Totally agree.

Anonymous

Interesting (and sad) how the ACLU in 2018 has totally and inexplicably reversed it’s positoon and is now against the civil rights of those who’s liberty has been deprived as a result of overly aggressive bail reform efforts vs where you rightly were in 1985 when you filed an amicus brief in U.S. v Salerno.

How is the justice system now detaining 2-3 times more arrestees than before bail reform all without a full evidentiary hearing by clear and convincing evidence? That’s NOT constitutional. Not in 1985. Not now!!

Bail is an implied constitutional right pursuant to the Eighth Amendment. It just can’t be excessive. But bail reform shouldn’t unilaterally destroy a constitutional right in their zeal to tweak a smaller issue.

When the solutions are worse than the illness there’s a huge issue.

Guess this is why our founders created checks and balances and the SCOTUS as the ultimate decider.

Just saying something over and over doesn’t make it right. On this issue the ACLU doesn’t have the high ground.

Ironically not only aren’t bail agents and their sureties not the problem, but their actually a necessary evil.

No one likes chemo but when you have cancer it’s often your best hope for survival. Similarly when you need to get people to court and pick up skips, if law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges used bail reasonably it would unilaterally fix any issues that exist with bail.

The fact that the ACLU can’t see the known consequences of bail reform and the detriment to arrestees — those presumed innocent — and the draconian denial of liberty and due process by using untested algorithms and post conviction tools like home detention and GPS monitoring, is startling. This is what happens when a group gets inclmves with politicians and picks sides vs defending the core values and principles upon which it was founded. Sad. Disingenuous. Very sad.

Anonymous

The best way to stop a person from committing crimes is to hit them in the pockets. I know (in theory) that everyone is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. In reality, we know that most of them are guilty. A knucklehead has no reason to obey the law if he can get arrested and get out of jail for free. I was once stopped three times on the same street for speeding. I was given a warning twice but stopped speeding on that street after I was given a ticket the third time. That $245 really got my attention. Also, bail agents have a financial incentive to make sure that defendants are in court and have a better track record of finding them when they aren't. They are quite efficient at doing so all without a burden to the taxpayers or law enforcement (who is already stretched thin).

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