The US Bail System: Reform or Replace?

A New York judge has recently stoked the fires of an old debate concerning the equality of the American bail system. Judge Jonathan Lippman stands behind his comment that the poor in must remain behind bars until their appointed court date even for relatively minor offenses often because they simply cannot afford to post the necessary bail.

In his own words: “The system strips our justice code of its credibility."

If a judge sets bail for a minor offense, a bail bondsman will not be likely to post a low cost bond because his share, which is usually between 10-15%, will be too small to warrant his time and effort.  The agent may require collateral, which could include a deed to property. Even if the verdict is not guilty, that fee is lost forever. If a defendant fails to appear in court, the bail agent has the legal right to track him or her down which is where recovery agents for better or for worse, come into the picture.

According to Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch: “The idea that somebody goes and sits in jail and endures all of the hardship of that simply because they don't have $500 or $1,000 is truly offensive and serves no public purpose… Your ability to remain free depends on the size of your wallet, which just inherently discriminates against the poor.”

Commercial bail bonds have been abolished in four states: Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin. Instead, deposits are made to the courts. It is the profit motive inherent in the current system that Judge Lippman has spoken out so loudly against. He believes that one way to eliminate that aspect that is to get more non-profit organizations involved in the bail process. He is not alone. With him stands the National Conference of Chief Justices and the American Bar Association who have also attempted to move away from a for-profit bail system.

Bail recovery agents have their own diverse point of view; many claiming that most reformers are at best misguided and that bail bondsmen are no more than “glorified insurance salesmen.”

The truth like always lies somewhere in between, seeking its own level like seawater rushing onto the shore.

Posted by M Dee Dubroff, on March 1, 2013 at 9:00 AM