Soapbox

False claims stoke fears about reforming California’s bail system

In reforming the California bail bonds system, few defendants would need to pay a nonrefundable fee to a bond company to get pretrial release. Instead, courts would assess whether individual defendants were flight risks or threats to public safety.
In reforming the California bail bonds system, few defendants would need to pay a nonrefundable fee to a bond company to get pretrial release. Instead, courts would assess whether individual defendants were flight risks or threats to public safety. The Associated Press

Assemblyman Travis Allen and reality TV star “Dog the Bounty Hunter” have a message: California bail reform is a threat to public safety.

In a recent video, Allen insists, “Senate Bill 10 would eliminate the bail system in California.” He’s wrong. “If it passes, criminals would no longer have to post bail and would be free to roam our neighborhoods.” He’s wrong about that, too. “My good friend Duane ‘Dog’ Chapman joined me at the Capitol to fight SB 10 and protect our communities and keep fugitives where they belong.” Third strike: that’s not why the bail industry is fighting to protect commercial bail.

Across a growing number of states, industry representatives are working to protect the status quo by making false claims about pretrial release and stoking fear about the consequences of reform.

First, SB 10 would restructure California’s bail system, but it would not, as industry defenders claim, “eliminate the bail system.” With reform, few defendants would still need to pay a nonrefundable fee to a bond company to get pretrial release. Instead, courts would assess whether individual defendants were flight risks or threats to public safety. Defendants deemed “bad risks” would have to submit to release with conditions, like checking in with a pretrial officer or taking random drug tests.

Second, bail industry representatives claim reform is dangerous because bail bond companies help protect public safety. That assertion bears little resemblance to my firsthand experience.

I worked as a bail bond agent in a large urban county for a little over a year for my ethnographic research. During this fieldwork, I heard a great deal about “public safety” from lawyers arguing about bail and judges making pretrial release decisions. But I rarely encountered mentions of public safety in the bail office. So long as defendants could pay us 10 percent of their bail, provide a solid co-signer (and, in some cases, collateral), and convince us they weren’t a major flight risk, we’d bail them out. Once defendants are out, the company’s main concern is protecting its investments – not the public’s safety.

To quote Allen, a Republican from Huntington Beach, our clients were “free to roam our neighborhoods.” We rarely kept in touch with clients unless they missed court or a payment; our office staff sent email and text reminders to avoid missing court. And we didn’t worry whether they might commit crimes while on release – that was the cops’ concern, not ours. Even if the police arrested someone we’d bailed out, our investment was protected: Defendants who are locked up don’t miss court.

When pressed, industry representatives will insist that bail companies protect public safety by returning fugitives to justice. And yes, some defendants fail to appear for their court date, and recovery agents usually track them down. But our bail company typically waited days or weeks after receiving forfeiture notices before sending out a bounty hunter or otherwise spending money on fugitive recovery. Often, before any expenditure was needed, the police arrested our clients or defendants turned themselves into the local jail. No need to open our wallet and send out our own cavalry.

The connection between commercial fugitive recovery and public safety, then, is truly tenuous. Even if we assume defendants roam the streets committing crimes as they await trial, that’s hardly a justification for cash bail. It would be at least as effective – though less profitable – to strengthen police departments’ capacities to track down fugitives.

The bail lobby’s “tough on crime” campaign paints a misleading portrait of commercial bail. Their fight against SB 10 is not about protecting public safety. It’s about protecting a lucrative industry.

Joshua Page is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, and he’s the author of “The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers’ Union in California.” He can be contacted at page@umn.edu.

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