One of my fond childhood memories is going to the amusement park in Cincinnati on Republican Day. My grandfather, who was a bail bondsman, organized the outings so I could ride on the rides and he could play cards in a tent with the judges. To whom he would systematically lose.
It was cleaner than outright bribery. Plus, you know, the Ferris wheel.
All that was a long time ago. I’m sure the current Cincinnati bondsmen, now known as bail agents, are lovely people. I’m just telling you this story as a colorful entry into the discussion of bail system reform.
The current model varies from state to state, but here’s how it basically works: If you get arrested for, say, shoplifting an expensive piece of jewelry, the judge will probably allow you to go free if you put up a certain amount of money as a guarantee that you'll show up for trial. Maybe the judge will say $5,000. If you have $5,000, you are back home for dinner.
If you don’t have $5,000, you can dispatch a relative across the street from the courthouse, where there are undoubtedly bail agents who will charge around $500 to guarantee the money on your behalf. If you don’t have $500, you may be sitting in jail until your trial. You won’t show up for work, and your boss will probably fire you.
“It’s simply not fair,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. She’s co-sponsoring a bail reform bill with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
“This is something people could feel good about getting done,” she added.
That’s pretty hard to resist – when was the last feel-good moment to come out of Washington? I’m thinking maybe the turkey pardoning last Thanksgiving.
The Harris-Paul bill is a pretty modest proposal – the idea is just to make $10 million available to encourage states to work on reform. But at least it would put things on the right track.
The current system is generally terrible. It’s unfair, and it doesn’t even do a good job of separating harmless arrestees from the ones you definitely want to keep behind bars. (“Are the right people in and the right people out? Most prosecutors would say no,” said Dave LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.)
Also, it costs a fortune – “$38 million a day to hold people in jail awaiting trial – $14 billion a year,” Harris said.
A few states have passed major reforms that take ability to pay a bail agent out of the equation as much as possible. Courts are also beginning to act – a federal judge in Houston ordered the county jails to stop holding prisoners awaiting trial for a misdemeanor. That was based in part on the famous case of a woman who was kept behind bars for driving without a license after she was unable to post $2,500 bail.
The bill is in the Judiciary Committee, so feel free to let the members know your opinion. The current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, doesn’t seem to have taken a public position on it. But given his overall attitude toward criminal justice, I think we can work under the assumption Sessions is not in love with any plan that would reduce the number of people in jails, whether they’ve been tried or not.
It is also facing fierce, fierce opposition from the Professional Bail Agents of the United States. Their president is Beth Chapman, who happens to be the wife of the world’s most famous bail agent, Dog the Bounty Hunter.
“I like Rand Paul, but I’m shocked at the people he’s working with,” Chapman said in a phone interview. “They’re sort of anti-American.”
The bail agents argue that people who have been freed under New Jersey’s reform system have been arrested for other crimes while awaiting trial, in one case murder. This is true, just as it’s true that some people commit crimes while they’re out on bail.
It’s also possible that all bail agents are not always as energetic as members of the Chapman family when it comes to keeping track of their charges.
My grandfather’s system of dealing with a “skip” was to write largely fictional letters to the judge explaining that he went to great efforts to retrieve the still-missing bailee and therefore did not deserve to be held accountable. Actually, he sometimes dictated them to me. This was back when I was in grade school, so clearly the judges did not have high spelling standards.
But again, that was a long time ago. Harris warned that it was important not to be cynical about modern-day bail agents. “A lot of them are running family businesses. They’re decent people trying to earn a living,” she said when I tried to entertain her with the sagas of my grandfather.
This is almost exactly what Beth Chapman said, right after she told me the senator was sort of anti-American and one of the “people whose agenda is to abolish prisons.” Maybe we need to get the two of them together for a friendly drink.
Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for the New York Times.