Venkata: Bail bonds and what they mean

Yet another way to keep the cycle of poverty alive and well.

Uma Venkata

One of the things that surprised me most when I moved to Minneapolis was the sheer number of bail-bond storefronts downtown. And now that bail bonds have quietly ballooned into a $2 billion industry, that’s all the more important.

Many of us haven’t heard of bail bonds, even though its industry is poisonous and predatory. I’d like to put all of us on the same page.

Say you get arrested. (The circumstances of the arrest are important, but there’s no room here; reasons for arrest and motivations for a crime or misdemeanor are not only topics for another column, but many volumes of books.) So, upon your arrest, in police custody, you receive a court date, where you can either remain in custody until the court date or pay your assigned bail amount — that is, you could post bail — and go home. And when you return to court on your correct date, the sum of bail will be returned to you.

Even though the money will get back to you in full, many defendants don’t have it ready at a moment’s notice. As of 2017, a stunning 57 percent of Americans have under $1,000 in savings at any given time. Among the cheapest average bail for a felony is forgery, around $20,000. Considering this, you may not be able to pull bail money out of thin air — especially if you’re from a marginalized community. Choosing between pretrial jail or posting bail, you may understand why defendants and their families take bail bonds instead. Also, consider how much money there is to lose when a defendant is in jail instead of going to work and taking care of dependents. This is where bail bondsmen come in.

The business of bondsmen is to cover the expense of the bail, and the defendant pays the company back. Bondsmen are largely unmonitored, charging staggering prices and exercising exorbitant power over their clients. According to The New York Times, bondsmen “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.” Bondsmen may imprison their clients because of a missed payment, unlike other creditors. Their clients accept responsibility to pay their excessive fees because they don’t know that the fees are often illegal, and after more harrowing details, bondsmen drive, and sometimes even directly encourage, their clients to commit even more crimes. It’s nearly impossible to escape this cycle of debt and rebuild a life. 

Bail bonds are a pervasive problem because people can’t afford bail; to avoid it, they need to avoid arrest, but it’s not that simple. The vast majority of people don’t get up in the morning for the express purpose of committing a crime and getting arrested. Certain factors will drive any human to break the law, from driving with a broken taillight to dealing drugs. The way we fix the bail-bond problem is to bring the lives of our marginalized citizens to parity with our own.