How much did you pay to be free today? Every day, innocent people are held for ransom in a system that’s become a profitable sector of the financial industry: bail. New research by the ACLU and Color of Change reveals just how damaging to communities this marketplace for hostages of the criminal-justice system has become.
Two years ago, the social upheaval of Ferguson exposed how in many cities and towns, law enforcement uses predatory fines and fees to criminalize people to extract revenue. The bail-bond industry links the criminal process even more tightly to the financial industry, directly exploiting families by ensnaring them in an increasingly privatized criminal-justice apparatus. The commercial bond market—one of the world’s only for-profit bail systems—has grown over time into an industry that trades in $14 billion worth of desperation each year.
“It’s extractive, it is harmful, and it is not helping in creating a more safe and just community,” says Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. Without structural reforms to restrict the use of bail by police and courts, he says, under current policies “you are better off being guilty and rich than innocent and poor in this country.”
After an arrest, commercial bail-bond agencies track people into multiple layers of coercion—they’re first locked up while awaiting trial, then face a bail bondsman who essentially determines their pretrial incarceration terms. In contrast to a court hearing, with some guarantee of transparent due process, according to American Bar Association, bail agents are empowered to set fees and collateral requirements, determine the rules for bond, or even whether to offer bail at all, “in secret, without any record of the reasons for these decisions.”
When justice is blind to everything but profit, actual guilt has no bearing on your sentence. Especially in black and brown communities where police regularly use stop-and-frisk tactics to impose “law and order,” a bout in jail for pot smoking might, for example, push parents into short-term loans with usurious interest rates, which continue profiting from families long after release by forcing them to pay out monthly installments. This mortgaging on liberty can deeply disrupt a young person’s education and future job prospects. Across neighborhoods deeply afflicted by mass incarceration, bail costs often destabilize families and lead to eviction or long-term financial crisis.
Typical bail rates, ranging from $50 to $350 nationwide, could bankrupt many poorer families. But the true collateral costs of bail for communities is immeasurable. One recent case study in San Joaquin Valley found that in a five-month period “nearly 200 people…paid for-profit bail companies to be freed from jail where no case was even filed and the charges were dropped. For-profit bail companies would likely have charged these families around $400,000 to post the bonds.” A five-year study in Maryland found that bail payments to for-profit bond agencies added up to more than $250 million. Payments disproportionately hurt the “poorest communities and [are] overwhelmingly paid by Black people.” The system that locks up people also drives the segregation of their neighborhoods and robs them of resources people need to heal from the trauma of imprisonment.