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In $2B bail bond industry, freedom comes at a price

Blair's Bail Bonds on Tulane Avenue in New Orleans, Dec. 19, 2017. As commercial bail has grown into a $2 billion industry, bond agents have become the payday lenders of the criminal justice world, offering quick relief to desperate customers at high prices. (William Widmer/The New York Times)
Published Apr. 6, 2018

Most bail bond agents make it their business to get their clients to court. But when Ronald Egana showed up at the criminal courthouse in New Orleans, he was surprised to find that his bondsman wanted to stop him.

A bounty hunter was waiting at the courthouse metal detector to intercept Egana and haul him to the bond company office, he said. The reason: The bondsman wanted to get paid. Egana ended up in handcuffs, missing his court appearance while the agency got his mother on the phone and demanded more than $1,500 in overdue payments, according to a lawsuit.

As commercial bail has grown into a $2 billion industry, bond agents have become the payday lenders of the criminal justice world, offering quick relief to desperate customers at high prices. When clients like Egana cannot afford to pay the bond company's fee to get them out, bond agents simply loan them the money, allowing them to go on a payment plan.

But bondsmen have extraordinary powers that most lenders do not. They are supposed to return their clients to jail if they skip court or do something illegal. But some states give them broad latitude to arrest their clients for any reason — or none at all. A credit card company cannot jail someone for missing a payment. A bondsman, in many instances, can.

Using that leverage, bond agents can charge steep fees, some of which are illegal, with impunity, according to interviews and a review of court records and complaint data. They can also go far beyond the demands of other creditors by requiring their clients to check in regularly, keep a curfew, allow searches of their car or home at any time, and open their medical, Social Security and phone records to inspection.

They keep a close eye on their clients, but in many places, no one is keeping a close eye on them.

"It's a consumer protection issue," said Judge Lee V. Coffee, a criminal court judge in Memphis, Tenn. Before recent changes to the rules there, he said, defendants frequently complained of shakedowns in which bondsmen demanded extra payments. "They're living under a constant daily threat that 'if you don't bring more money, we're going to put you in jail.'?" The pressure, the judge said, "would actually encourage people to go out and commit more crimes."

Some customers feel they have no choice but to pay bond agents' fees — no matter how outrageous they seem. When a home health care aide wanted to bail her son in New York City, she was charged $1,000 to have a courier walk her money a few blocks to the courthouse. A defendant in a serious domestic violence case in Santa Clara, Calif., suffering from a dangerous heart condition, had to have his ankle monitor removed each time he went to the hospital, and was forced to pay $300 to have it put back on afterward.

In Egana's case, the bond agency, Blair's Bail Bonds, would not have been on the hook for the defendant's failure to appear, because the bondsman diverted Egana from a court date for a case unrelated to the one for which he had been bailed out.

The use of bail bonds has come under attack in recent years because it keeps the poorest, rather than the most dangerous, defendants behind bars.

The bond agent takes a fee in exchange for guaranteeing the amount of the bail on the defendant's behalf. But the fee — or premium — usually about 10 percent, is too high for many defendants, the vast majority of whom are poor. So they arrange a payment plan. The debt, paid over weeks or months of installments, can outlast the criminal case.

The arrangement can include steep late fees or require signing over collateral worth many times what is owed. And while defendants, or the family members and friends who often shoulder the costs, typically pay no interest as long as their payments are on time, if they go into default they can trigger annual interest rates as high as 30 percent.

"Bail insurers have shaped the entire industry, as well as the laws they operate under, to safeguard their profits at the expense of people's lives," said Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization.

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