In 2008, 18-year-old Demorrea Tarver was out with some friends when he was stopped by the police. Officers found a handgun in the handbag of a minor who was riding with Tarver (Tarver said he didn’t know about the gun) and a small amount of marijuana. The cops arrested Tarver and charged him with three counts of possession. A Baltimore judge set bail at $275,000.
Baltimore’s City Paper reports that Tarver’s mother came up with a $5,000 down payment from Fred Frank Bail Bonds and set up a payment plan to pay the remainder of the $27,500 owed, which amounted to the standard 10 percent nonrefundable fee charged by most bail bondsmen. The family paid $150 a month until they could no longer afford it, which landed the case in the hands of a debt collector in 2011, who began adding $2,070 to the principal of the debt in annual interest. Since then, Tarver has paid $100 a month, which isn’t enough to pay the interest and the thousands in court costs and attorney’s fees, so the debt continues to accumulate. Tarver now owes more money than he actually borrowed.
The arresting officer in the case was Fabien Laronde, who was fired from the Baltimore Police Department in 2016 after a string of incidents and complaints about his conduct that dated as far back as 2006. Because of years of misconduct, authorities dismissed a number of Laronde’s cases, including Tarver’s. But Tarver still owes the bail-bond money and has been struggling to pay the mounting debt for an arrest that doesn’t officially exist.
Demorrea Tarver makes $18 an hour.
Tarver’s is just one of the cases highlighted in a new report by Color of Change and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice titled, “Selling Off Our Freedom: How Insurance Corporations Have Taken Over Our Bail System”(pdf). The report looks at how the for-profit bail system has taken over the pretrial justice system, operating with little oversight, forcing poor people to choose between a lifetime of debt and staying in jail.
How Do Bail Bonds Work?
The U.S. Constitution guarantees that a person accused of a crime is innocent until proved guilty. When a person is arrested and booked into jail, a court will typically determine whether he or she is eligible for release while the case is in progress, and may set conditions under which the person can go home for the weeks, months or even years it may take for a case to wend its way through the court system. One increasingly common condition of release is the payment of money bail.
When a family cannot afford bail, they typically use a private bail-bond company, which typically charges a fee of 10 percent of the bail amount (although the fee can be much higher). The bond company will sometimes take less than 10 percent and set up a payment plan for the balance. Bond companies sometimes require individuals to put up property as collateral and often charge onerous additional fees.
The bond is a legal promise to pay the bail in full if the court declares the bond forfeited, which may be triggered for failure to appear. According to the report:
Most bail bond agents are backed by a bail insurance corporation as “surety.” The bail agents pay a percentage, usually around 10 percent of the premium they charge, to an insurance company for underwriting. Bail bond agents guarantee they’ll be responsible for any forfeitures, but they also typically pay another 10 percent into a “Build-Up Fund” that the insurer holds onto as a reserve to make sure that funds will be available.
That’s how it works. In essence, once you are accused of a crime, even if you are still technically innocent, insurance companies have found a way to make innocent people pay for their freedom.
How Does For-Profit Bail Fuel Mass Incarceration?
If you ever listen to Fox News or any interview with a conservative politician, you cannot go more than two minutes without hearing the phrase “the free market.” According to them, it is the cure for every societal ill. It is why Betsy DeVos was booed at Bethune-Cookman University, because she believes the free market concept of school choice is the answer to America’s educational woes. The “free market” is why the GOP wants to replace Obamacare with a kindergarten tax plan that will make it rain on rich people. If there is any crevice in America from which someone can profit, the free market will discover it.
The concept of a free market has always been antithetical to the idea of justice. If the law is tied to money, then incarceration becomes a business. This is the reason that people fight against the prison-industrial complex so vigorously.
The United States and the Philippines are the only two countries that allow a for-profit bail system. According to the report, an estimated $14 billion in bonds are secured by insurance companies every year. The majority of these bonds are secured by nine huge insurance corporations.
In 1990, only 24 percent of people released from jail paid a money bail. In 2009, that figure rose to 49 percent. The average bail in the U.S. has risen to $10,000, so, of course, arrests have risen, too. Every year, 10.9 million people are arrested and booked into jail, giving the free market bail industry $2.4 billion in revenue.
Who Does This Affect?
Black people. Specifically, poor black people.
It’s just that simple. Here are some of the startling statistics contained in the report:
- Black men and women ages 23 to 39 held in local jails earned a median income of only $900 and $568, respectively, in the month prior to being held.
- Black defendants between ages 18 and 29 receive higher bail amounts and are less likely to be released on recognizance than were white defendants.
- In Maryland, the $250 million in bail fees are overwhelmingly paid by black defendants.
- In New Orleans, black residents paid 84 percent of bail premiums and associated fees.
Unlike most areas of the law, bail is mostly determined arbitrarily by a judge. In most states, there are no guidelines for what a defendant pays for his or her freedom. This means that the African Americans with higher bail amounts often sit in jail for longer periods of time. The report shows how these high bails result in higher conviction rates for blacks:
Once people are trapped in detention by bail they cannot afford, and which research shows is racially discriminatory, prosecutors can use detention or the promise of release as a prod to extract guilty pleas ...
The important thing to remember is that these people have not been convicted of a crime. In fact, 70 percent of the people in jail have never been convicted of a crime, and most of the people in any county jail are not there because of how detrimental to society their alleged crimes were—it is simply because of how poor they are. The statistics show that 90 percent of people in jail awaiting the resolution of a felony trial in 2009 were there because they couldn’t afford bail.
Research has shown that money bail determinations are racially disparate, compounding the huge disparity in arrests, charges and incarceration faced by black people at every stage of the criminal-justice system.
Aside from years of a financial burden that can spiral poor people into a mountain of debt, there is also the violence and trauma associated with being jailed before defendants are even tried. Oftentimes, people must pay these fees for life, even when they are found innocent. According to the report:
- In just five months of 2016, nearly 200 people in California’s San Joaquin County paid for-profit bail companies to be freed from jail when 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 November 2016 report by Maryland’s Office of the Public Defender found that over a five-year period, “more than $75 million in bail-bond premiums were charged in cases that were resolved without any finding of wrongdoing,” more than twice the premium charged in cases resulting in a conviction in District Court.
Who Makes the Money and Why Won’t Lawmakers Stop It?
Corporations are raking in billions from America’s bail system—many of them located outside the country. Japan’s Tokyo Marine and Canada’s Fairfax Financial raked in millions, while domestic private equity firms, U.S. banks and insurance companies also pile up profits.
They are benefiting from a lack of oversight fueled by lawmakers who look the other way in exchange for cash. From 2012-2014, insurers contributed $1.2 million to the American Bail Coalition’s lobbying efforts. ABC’s board chairman is also chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s private advisory council. ALEC is a conservative, pro-privatization group funded by corporations and basically writes laws, hands them to politicians, and gets them to pass them in local and state legislatures. This is why states across the country have laws regulating bail bonds that all contain the same wording.
Whenever lawmakers try to reform these laws, ABC and ALEC show up with a bundle of cash. When a group of legislators in Maryland tried to reform bail laws, $120,000 miraculously showed up in contributions to the two chairmen of the committee. When California introduced Proposition 47—which reduced bail amounts in low-level drug arrests and petty crimes—the industry threw $300,000 into the election-cycle campaign funding.
When Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) tried to introduce the No Money, No Bail Act, which sought to reduce funding for states with money-bail systems, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced a federal version of the ABC-ALEC anti-pretrial-services legislation. Poe and Hatch’s proposal might have something to do with the $500,000 ABC and ALEC handed out to the committee chairmen.
The system is one of the most profitable and low-risk ways an insurance company can make money. In 2013 Jerry Watson, chief legal officer of AIA Holdings (one of the largest surety insurers), told a reporter of his 107-year-old company, “You know how many checks has [sic] this company written to pay a bail loss? ... Not a single one.”
What Can We Do?
With police continuing to arrest people and judges continuing to hand out money bails, the system will never change. Simply put, in order for things to change, judges must stop charging innocent people for their freedom. Until politicians agree that making people pay before they are convicted is not only unconstitutional but unjust, this will never end.
“For too long, the bail-bond industry has profited from a system that traps poor people in a cycle of incarceration and debt,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. “It is time for states to abolish the for-profit bail system, which perpetuates racial bias within the criminal-justice system and only benefits the bail industry’s bottom line. Money shouldn’t determine someone’s freedom from incarceration. Wall Street must not be the gatekeeper of pretrial detention and release. Profits must be removed from playing any role in deciding whether a person is free or in jail.”
In the report, a man named Cedric Smith revealed how he couldn’t pay bail for the crime of which he was accused, so he sat in jail for 41 days until he was tried and found not guilty. Smith lost his job and now depends on food stamps to live.
Carlos Valiente’s mother paid $1,000 for his freedom and agreed to pay Aladdin Bail Bonds the rest in installments. Valiente’s charges were dismissed, but it will still take him four or five years to pay the $6,000 owed to Aladdin on the $14 per hour he makes as a construction worker.
Then there are the cases of people who have been killed by the for-profit bail system, like the woman who mysteriously died in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas. Some people say she killed herself, while others say there was foul play. Most people say she should never have been arrested, but in any case, it is hard to argue that Sandra Bland wouldn’t still be alive if she hadn’t had to pay money for her liberty.
Maybe it is true what they say about America whenever politicians are looking to cajole us into war or justify dead black bodies while the tearful masses are left wondering why it is always we whose hands always end up in shackles, whose necks always end up under boots and whose pockets always end up empty, as politicians wave the American flag in our faces to justify their terror:
Freedom isn’t free.