Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Economics of Bail

We mostly think about prisons and courts as the few things the private sector can't private. But bail bondsman are a unique American solution to a universal problem:
Bounty hunters and bail bondsmen play an important but unsung role in a legal system whose court dockets are too crowded to provide swift justice. When a suspect is arrested, a judge must make a decision: set the suspect free on his own recognizance until the court is ready to proceed, hold the suspect in jail, or release the accused on the condition that he post a bail bond. A bond is a promise backed by incentive. If the suspect shows up on the trial date, he gets his money back; but if he fails to show, the money is forfeited. We don’t want to deprive the innocent of their liberty, but we also don’t want to give the guilty too much of a head start on their escape. Bail bonds don’t solve this problem completely, but they do give judges an additional tool to help them navigate the dilemma.

Bail might be a rich man’s privilege were it not for the bail bondsman. (Many bondsmen are women, but “bondsperson” doesn’t have quite the same ring, so I’ll use the standard terminology.) In return for a non-refundable fee, usually around 10 percent of the bond, a bondsman will put up his own money with the court. A typical bond might run $6,000. If the defendant shows up, the bondsman earns $600. But if the defendant flees, the bondsman potentially can forfeit $6,000. Potentially, because when a fugitive fails to appear, the court gives the bondsman a notice that essentially says, “Bring your charge to justice soon or your money is mine.” A bondsman typically has 90 to 180 days to bring a fugitive back to justice, so when a defendant jumps bail, the bondsman lets the dogs loose.
So what does it take to be a successful bounty hunnter? Not what you'd expect:
What it takes to be a successful bounty hunter is mostly persistence and politeness. On most days your leads don’t pay off, so you need to visit and revisit the fugitive’s home, work, and favorite hangouts. Waiting is a big part of the game. Why politeness? Well, where do the leads come from? From people like Chrissy’s aunt—relatives and friends who might not talk to the police but who will respond to a kind word. Bounty hunters are polite even to the fugitives who, after all, are also their customers, and sadly, bounty hunters rely a lot on repeat business. One customer of a firm owned by the same family that runs the one Dennis works for told him proudly, “My family and I have been coming to Frank’s Bail Bonds for three generations.”

Most fugitives don’t fight, and Dennis is eager to avoid confrontation. Cowboys don’t last long in this business.
What about the skechtiest clients, what are they afraid of?:
If at all possible, bail bondsmen get a friend or family member to cosign the bond. The reason is simple. A defendant whose bond is cosigned is less likely to flee. As Dennis told me, “In my line of work, I deal with some mean people, people who aren’t afraid of me or the police. But even the mean ones are afraid of their mom, so if I can get Mom to list her house as collateral, I know the defendant is much more likely to show up when he is supposed to.” A defendant whose bond is cosigned is also more likely to be caught if he does flee, because the bondsman will remind the cosigner that if the fugitive can’t be found, it’s not just the bondsman who will be left holding the bag.
So what's the difference between a bounty hunter and a police officer?:
Bounty hunters have robust rights to arrest fugitives. They can, for example, lawfully break into a suspect’s home without a warrant, pursue and recover fugitives across state lines without necessity of extradition proceedings, and search and seize without the constraint of the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonableness” requirement. Just like everyone else, however, bounty hunters must obey the criminal statutes. A bounty hunter who uses unreasonable force or mistakenly enters the home of someone who is not a bail jumper is subject to criminal prosecution.
How did we get this uniquely American system?:
The prerogatives of bounty hunters flow from the historical evolution of bail. Bail began in medieval England as a progressive measure to help defendants get out of jail while they waited, sometimes for many months, for a roving judge to show up to conduct a trial. If the local sheriff knew the accused, he might release him on the defendant’s promise to return for the hearing. More often, however, the sheriff would release the accused to the custody of a surety, usually a brother or friend, who guaranteed that the defendant would present himself when the time came. So, in the common law, custody of the accused was never relinquished but instead was transferred to the surety—the brother became the keeper—which explains the origin of the strong rights bail bondsmen have to pursue and capture escaped defendants. Initially, the surety’s guarantee to the sheriff was simple: If the accused failed to show, the surety would take his place and be judged as if he were the offender.

The English system provided lots of incentives for sureties to make certain that the accused showed up for trial, but not a lot of incentive to be a surety. The risk to sureties was lessened when courts began to accept pledges of cash rather than of one’s person, but the system was not perfected until personal surety was slowly replaced by a commercial surety system in the United States. That system put incentives on both sides of the equation. Bondsmen had an incentive both to bail defendants out of jail and to chase them down should they flee. By the end of the 19th century, commercial sureties were the norm in the United States. (The Philippines is the only other country with a similar system.)
So is this private system better than a public bail-bond system? If I'm asking the answer's probably yes:
Our research backs up what I found on the street: Bail bondsmen and bounty hunters get their charges to show up for trial, and they recapture them quickly when they do flee. Nationally, the failure-to-appear rate for defendants released on commercial bail is 28 percent lower than the rate for defendants released on their own recognizance, and 18 percent lower than the rate for those released on government bond.

Even more important, when a defendant does skip town, the bounty hunters are the ones who pursue justice with the greatest determination and energy. Defendants sought by bounty hunters are a whopping 50 percent less likely to be on the loose after one year than other bail jumpers.

In addition to being effective, bail bondsmen and bounty hunters work at no cost to the taxpayers. The public reaps a double benefit, because when a bounty hunter fails to find his man, the bond is forfeit to the government. Because billions of dollars of bail are written every year and not every fugitive is caught, bond forfeits are a small but welcome source of revenue.


  1. Well written and to-the-point description of bounty hunters and bail bondsmen. Ethical (and I empasize that word) bondsmen can ease a community's tax burden, protect a defendant's constitutional right, and help make an area safer. This industry is a great example of how the private sector can excel at an industry which would be a governmental money pit.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. This is a refreshing perspective on the bail bond industry, Harrison. Good job! Some people are so used to the mechanics of "bail" in popular board games that they don't know how the process really works. Your in-depth take on the system, especially your clarification on what happens to bond forfeits, can educate a lot of people so they'll know what to do in case they need to hire a bondsman. Thank you!

  4. Thanks for sharing this great content, I really enjoyed the insign you bring to the topic, awesome stuff!
    Amazing how simple it can be to communicate with people and have them understand a certain topic, you made my day.


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