CNN on 08/30/2019 by Collete Richards and Drew Griffen
On the side of a building just outside the county jail in Des Moines, Iowa, there is a drive-thru window. But it is not dishing out burgers and fries. The main item on its menu is freedom, and it can come at a steep price.
“Get your bail bond here. Don’t wait at jail,” reads the old-timey script on a sign in the yard.
The unassuming tan building with green and burnt orange accents sits on a small hill before the jail. There is no way to miss Lederman Bail Bonds on the way in or out of the correctional complex.
It’s the family business — run by four brothers who have operations across Iowa and the rest of the Midwest. But behind the familiar drive-thru window set up is a well-funded political force with an agenda to stop the jail at the bottom of the hill from making any changes to a bail system that keeps their profits rolling in.
Across the country, bail bond companies like the ones owned by the Ledermans are up in revolt, fighting back against states’ efforts to rethink and overhaul an antiquated money bail system.
Corrections officials, jail runners, judges, public defenders, civil rights groups, and bipartisan leaders alike agree that the system in place that handles the presumed innocent is broken.
As structured, the bail bonds industry survives largely off those who don’t have the financial resources to post bail. Overwhelmingly, the service of a bail bondsman is their only way out of jail. Bail bond companies make money by charging a fee — typically 10% of a defendant’s bail amount. So if a defendant has bond set at $50,000, the bail bond company charges $5,000 to get them out. No matter what, the bonds company will collect that charge — guilty or not guilty. Even if the charges are dropped. That is the price and process of release.
Those who can’t afford the 10% the bond company charges can set up a payment plan, usually in small installments like $100 a week until the big bill is paid off. Contracts like those tether vulnerable families to debts that can linger on for years — landing them in court for missed payments, with garnished wages and accruing interest. Experts say defendants will sometimes plead guilty to lesser charges, even if they are innocent, in order to avoid the bail system and get out of jail sooner.
More affluent defendants, who can afford to post bond with their own money, go free and get the money back provided they show up for their court dates.
Reform efforts across the country seek to make the bail system less burdensome on the poor. The majority of states addressing the issue are trying to make money bail the last resort, by mandating that judges apply the “least onerous release conditions possible” and consider the defendant’s ability to pay, as well as eliminating money bail for low-level charges. As a result, the $2-billion-a-year bail bonds industry is in a fight for its very survival.
A CNN review of all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that the powerful industry has derailed, stalled or killed reform efforts in at least nine states, which combined cover more than one third of the country’s population.
To date, more than 25 states have passed laws or enacted changes that address bail practices, while several still have pending efforts or bail procedure review committees in the works.
The story of bail reform is as messy as it is laborious. It’s a long road of continuous push and pull between stakeholders. Even among reformers, there’s disagreement over how best to do it. A popular remedy is using some sort of computerized “risk assessment” tool that evaluates the likelihood a person would show up for court based on criteria such as age, past failures to appear for court and criminal convictions. However, some scholars and civil rights activists, including the ACLU, oppose such tools, saying they are flawed and often racially biased. Whether attempting sweeping or modest change, lawmakers have described the bail industry’s involvement as nasty and contentious.
Jeff Clayton, the Executive Director of the American Bail Coalition, said that the process is tense on both sides and that his industry is unfairly being called predatory.”We don’t arrest the people,” Clayton said. “We don’t set their bails. And if people want to use our services, we feel that’s an extension of their constitutional right to do so.” Clayton adds that while his group “participated in public policy discussion regarding bail reform” in the nine states outlined by CNN, “we definitely had significant impact” but “I don’t think we were the driving force.”
Even after a reform is passed, the battle can continue.
Last year, California lawmakers passed the most far-reaching legislation yet — ending cash bail altogether. But shortly after the passage of that law, the bail bond industry, and the insurance companies that underwrite their bonds, raised more than $3 million to fund a ballot referendum that put everything on hold.
The effort was successful, and voters will decide the issue on the November 2020 ballot.
The same thing is happening across the country.
In Texas, for example, there was a clamor for reforms following the jailhouse death of Sandra Bland, who had been arrested for allegedly assaulting an officer during a July 2015 traffic stop for not using a turn signal. Her family was working to secure the 10% fee to hire a bondsman on her $5,000 bail, but three days after her arrest she was found hanging in her cell. Had Bland been able to afford her bond, reformers say, she would not have sat alone in a jail cell for three days. Texas tried to pass reforms in the 2017 session, but the bail industry’s lobbying efforts helped thwart the measure from progressing, according to a committee staff member. This past session, despite even wider support and a strong initiative by the governor, bail reform died again, as the bill the House passed was never put on a Senate committee calendar.Most lawmakers pursue bail reform because of the consequences that come with putting a price on someone’s freedom, particularly if that person is poor.
County jails are overflowing with people waiting to have their day in court. They far outnumber those who are serving actual sentences for crimes.