Should Justice Have a Price Tag?
In this episode of The Real Baltimore, advocates for bail reform square off with a bail bondsman over the future of a system that keeps poor defendants locked up while awaiting trial
TAYA GRAHAM: Cash, safety and freedom. These are just some of the words that punctuate the debates on Baltimore’s massive criminal justice system. Not just within the context of crime and punishment, but thinking about the idea of justice, what it means, and how do we achieve it. That question couldn’t be more relevant as we discuss today’s topic: money bail.
Money bail: the process of making defendants pay to be released prior to trial has lately come under scrutiny. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh says it may be unconstitutional, because it jails people simply because they cannot afford to pay. And a recent report by the public defender’s office bolsters that argument, revealing that thousands of people remain in jail every year, simply because they can’t pay a small amount of bail.
But the bail bonds industry is fighting back. They argue without bail, people won’t show up to court, and that their system ultimately keeps us safer –- which brings me to our panel.
Mark Adams is a former journalist and current bail bondsman, with an equal amount of experience in both. Doug Colbert is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. And Dayvon Love is a director of public policy for the social justice group, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.
Thank you all for joining us. But before we begin our discussion, we have a package from our investigative reporter, Stephen Janis that will give us an overview on where the fight over cash bail is now.
STEPHEN JANIS: The case of Baltimore resident Calvin Wilkes, named by all the excesses critics say plagues our bail system, a young man who got into an argument with the police at the Inner Harbor in 2014, and was forcefully arrested. But his troubles didn’t end there. He was given something known as cash bail, in the amount of $15,000, meaning he couldn’t use bond to be released before his trial. And his predicament is why many are now saying bail is simply unfair.
CRAIG JOHNSON: I’ve been incarcerated, and there were times I could not raise bail. And also, I’ve seen people that could not raise bail and sat in a jail cell for a month, waiting for their trial to come up.
STEPHEN JANIS: It’s not about getting people to show up at court, but a form of pre-punishment. It’s also profitable. Not just for local firms, but large multinationals, which reap hundreds of millions of dollars from poor defendants each year.
DOUG COLBERT: For every thousand dollars that a bondsman gets on their fee, the bondsman keeps 40%, or $400, and gives the other 60% to the underwriter, the insurance company. Which may very well be the person that you write your check to for car insurance, or a mortgage, or anything else…
STEPHEN JANIS: Which is why perhaps the Maryland Court of Appeals adopted a new rule, instructing judges to forego bail for people who cannot afford it, and why Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh says it may be unconstitutional.
But the bail bonds industry says those arguments miss a critical part of the equation: safety.
CRAIG LOFTON: Even if you implement this new system, there’s still not a deterrent and everything. What you’re going to have is, you’re going to have something similar to what Illinois have. Where you’re going to have a lot of people that are getting out, and they go out here, and they commit more crimes and they don’t have the fear of bond, and they don’t have the bail bondsmen that have a vested in them.
STEPHEN JANIS: And some politicians agree.
MICHAEL MALONE: Well, I’m concerned about removing cash bail. I mean, it’s… you know, America is sort of built on a capitalistic system. And one of the benefits of bail was it requires someone, a defendant, to have some skin in the game, and to be motivated to appear for court.
CROWD: … End cash bail! Freedom’s not for sale!…
STEPHEN JANIS: Both sides have dug in for what seems to be a fierce fight in Annapolis. Last week, protesters gathered as the bail industry wined and dined legislators at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The protest was peaceful, but the divide remains clear between those who think money corrupts the system, and others who say it can’t work without it. This is Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore, Maryland.
CROWD: … End cash bail! Freedom’s not for sale!…
TAYA GRAHAM: Professor Colbert, let me start with you. What is the argument to eliminate cash bail? Why do we need to eliminate bail?
DOUG COLBERT: Well, freedom should never depend on how much money you have. Obviously it’s going to benefit the people who have financial resources. It’s going to punish people by keeping them in jail. Our most precious human right is our freedom, so when you have to pay a bail bondsman a 10% non-refundable fee, you have to ask the question, why? Why do we put a price?
If people are a danger, then you leave them in jail until their case is over. And if they’re not a danger, then you have to look at whether they’re going to return to court. There are many ways of assuring that people come back to court. In our city, 93%, 94% of the people return to court.
So, what we’re doing is, we’re really empowering bail bondsmen, to give them more power than police officers to arrest people. To enter people’s homes without a warrant, and it’s a very lucrative business.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, Mark, you work in the bail bonds industry. How would you counter Professor Colbert’s argument? Why do we need bail?
MARK ADAMS: We are the public’s first line of defense against the arbitrary hand of government. We come out at night. We work around the clock. We don’t discriminate. If someone arranges to post the bail, we post it for them, and we get them to court in much greater percentages than any other form of release.
The other alternative, which you were saying — in the works now — is that a lot more people are being held in jail because the judges are, kind of hedging their bets, and sending more people to jail until trial, because they’ve been told by the hierarchy, not to use corporate bail bondsmen.
TAYA GRAHAM: Okay. Now, Dayvon, your organization was pushing for police reform. Why did you also choose bail as a key issue?
DAYVON LOVE: Well, if you think about the phenomena of mass incarceration, which primarily affects black and brown people, and we see mass incarceration as an extension of the racism, and white supremacy that’s so endemic in our society. There’s the initial contact with law enforcement, but then there’s what happens after the initial contact.
We find that there’s black and brown folks that are most directly affected by the institution of cash bail, and really what amounts to wealth extraction, from black poor folks.
TAYA GRAHAM: Well, Professor Colbert, what’s wrong with asking defendants to pay? How do we ensure that people show up in court?
DOUG COLBERT: People show up in court because they’re reminded they have a court date. We don’t need to put a leash on people. We don’t need to treat them as chattel property, which is what the bondsmen do. This is an anachronism. This is something that’s coming from our inglorious, and ugly history of slavery in our country.
During slavery you could purchase your freedom by giving your owner, $300 was the going price for a long time. You also gave the property owner enormous, or total absolute control over the individual.
When you sign the bondsman’s contract, you are giving away all of your human right to privacy. The bondsman can come crashing into your home. They can arrest you if they don’t like the way you’re looking at me now. And this is something that comes back to the history. When Mark talks about bondsmen working 24/7, getting people to court.
People come to court — if they need supervision, then we have pre-trial services that will remind them to come to court. People don’t need to be treated like children. They are responsible human beings.
So, we really have to ask ourselves, why are we giving a private group so much power? And the profits are enormous.
TAYA GRAHAM: Mark, doesn’t the bail seem to fall disproportionately on poor people, the people who can’t afford it? Attorney General Brian Frosh just said that this is unconstitutional. How would you argue against that?
MARK ADAMS: The Maryland rules, which have been in effect since 1984, I believe, requires the courts to consider people’s financial capabilities when they set a bail. If they’re not doing that, that is a call for judicial reform, and not reform of a private industry –- because we’re the only component of the system that works.
We get people to court. We get them out of jail. If they don’t go to court, which is about 7… anywhere from 7% to 10% of the people who are our customers — and we get the hardest cases — if they don’t go to court, we bring them in.
TAYA GRAHAM: But you don’t think it’s worse, at all, to introduce profit into this process? I mean, introducing profit into the criminal justice system, doesn’t it encourage, basically, profiting off of human bodies?
MARK ADAMS: Do the police profit off of human bodies, when they get… I mean, most police officers are making more than the typical bail bondsman these days.
TAYA GRAHAM: Well, why… go ahead, Dayvon.
DAYVON LOVE: Just a few things. The first is that this country has a history of creating industries off of black suffering. And to me, what’s really fascinating about this conversation, is that if you have pre-trial services, a robust pre-trial services, and you have non-financial conditions for making sure people show up to court, not only, to me, does that — common sense says that’s probably more effective — but bail bondsmen are not trained human social service professionals that have an intimate understanding of the community, have been trained…
TAYA GRAHAM: Good point.
DAYVON LOVE: …dealing with the populations, the most directly confront the pre-trial system. So, I just find it… I find it disingenuous to describe the bail bonds industry as the first line of defense to the public.
If you think about the bail bonds industry as a private industry, it isn’t owned by folks from the community. That doesn’t equip people to go out and actually improve the quality of life for the people that they’re dealing with.
And just… you know, just from personal experience, from knowing people who have had to have bails, the bail bondmen aren’t with you every step of the way, and purporting to be the protector of the person that needs to show up to court.
That’s just not the… and I would argue that’s not the general experience of a person who posts bail. It’s what you know you need to do under the current system, to not be held pre-trial.
TAYA GRAHAM: Well, isn’t money a very big part of this? I mean, Common Cause just released a report showing that key legislators are receiving lots of money from the bail bonds industry –- up to 11% to 13% of their total campaign donations. And the bail bonds industry just took out some legislators to the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Annapolis. How can that not influence policy?
DAYVON LOVE: To the point that was mentioned earlier about… you mentioned legislators that get a lot of money, you asked the question about law enforcement. What’s interesting, is that the chair of the two major committees that we have to get legislation through, the House Judiciary Committee, judicial proceedings.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. Zirkin and Valeria.
DAYVON LOVE: Both Zirkin and Valeria, receive a lot of money from bail bondsmen — who, by the way, were also pretty atrocious on police reform, right? — That aren’t interested in civilian oversight, over law enforcement. So, their resistance to bail reform is right in line, right with the fundamentally racist practice of dealing with black people, not as human beings, but as objects of other people’s profiteering enterprises.
And so, at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, we happened to just come across a flyer where the House Judiciary Committee was being wined and dined by bail bondsmen. And for us, we find it appropriate to find out which legislators are being wined and dined, to hold them accountable.
So, I mean, the question that I would have is, is there any evidence to suggest that financial, or money bail, is more effective than non-financial conditions, that would be operated and run out of a pre-trail system?
MARK ADAMS: Absolutely. We have an appearance rate in the low 90%. In Montgomery County, where they have gone to charging a lot of cases by citations, their appearance rate is 80%. Unsecured bails, which really is –- I call them fake bails –- because there really is no security or collateral.
For example, Judge Gary Bair, in Montgomery, let a man accused of murder, out on a half million dollar unsecured bail, with the requirement that he be on home detention. He was homeless and he had worked as a line cook at Chevy’s Restaurant. Telling him that he has to make a half-million dollar promise for his appearance is just an absurdity. But those forms of release do not have the success that we have.
And in many instances they’re a lot more intrusive than we are. And you’re right, that we don’t supervise people. We get them to court. If we feel that they need supervision, it’s usually a phone call. What we do is we require an indemnitor to sign the bail. It’s usually a mother, girlfriend, spouse, brother, sometimes the employer. And the family, and the community, does a much better job of supervising people, than anyone in our world, or in the government world.
As far as government supervision, and pre-trial supervision, they just came up with a program where women who were charged with prostitution on the west side of downtown, are going to be referred to an agency that’s going to provide services. The office is going to be open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. People who get locked up for prostitution usually get locked up at night. So, what are they going to do with these ladies?
Are they going to leave them on the doorstep? Are they going to give them a little slip of paper and say you go to this office in the morning, and expect them to go there?
DAYVON LOVE: Well, I think to your point, one of the things that you just said is that community is much better at supervising folks than bail bonds folks. So, what I would say is, that there are some people in the community would want to detain, pre-trail. Right? And I think that’s up to the community to decide.
And I think a part of the reform moving forward, is around pre-trial services collaborating with community-based organizations. That aren’t necessarily attached to government, that can do the supervision and do all the proper wrap-around services that would be necessary for a person that is brought in pre-trial.
I just… it’s just… it’s odd to me that the idea of a person giving money, and that being the only way, or being seen as the most effective way, of making sure our people go to court.
I mean, as Doug mentioned earlier, Baltimore Pre-trial Services is in the middle 90s percentage-wise, in terms of people appearing for court, and middle 90s in terms of people not committing violent offences when they’re released.
DOUG COLBERT: See, what we’re talking about here is, Mark’s representing a business that only operates as a business. So, every time the judge sets a bail, they’re very happy, because the only way you get out of jail is to pay the bondsman. If you want to pick up on the one point where I do agree with Mark and Dayvon, the family, the community is the best way of getting people back to court. They’ll accompany the person.
So, if you’re really set on cash bail, if the Governor is really set on it, put the cash bail in the court. And then you have incentive to come back, because if you put it in court, you get back the money. When you give it to the bondsman, it doesn’t matter if the case is dismissed the next day. It’s theirs. They keep it.
And so when you’re talking about unsecured bond, that’s the way the federal court system works. That’s the way it’s worked for as long as anyone can remember –- since 1963, ’64. So, unsecured bond works really well. It’s not a fake bond.
It’s saying to the individual, we trust that you will come back. And when we talk about pre-trial supervision, here in Baltimore City it’s a 93% or 94% of people who return, as long as they have somebody to remind them, or somebody to just make sure that they’re checking in, if they need it.
So, every argument that the bondsmen make, they don’t provide safety for the community. All they want is people out of jail. Once people are out of jail under their watch, people can commit a new crime. They’re not interested in their safety; they’re interested in the profit.
TAYA GRAHAM: Well, it seems like Mark is making the argument that in the other counties, they have lower rates of people appearing, and we have higher rates in Baltimore because we have bail bondsmen. Is that correct, Mark?
MARK ADAMS: Partially that. And another factor in Baltimore is Central Booking, is so dreadful, that people show up because they don’t want to get locked up again. Spending a night in Central Booking is –- and if someone is arrested on a warrant in Baltimore, they’re not getting out of Central Booking in less than a day.
DOUG COLBERT: But, Mark, you know, people are paying money from the rent that they have to pay…
TAYA GRAHAM: Very true…
DOUG COLBERT: …from food. This is not about just the people left behind who are in jail. It’s the people who have to find money when they don’t have the money.
MARK ADAMS: But then we get into the concept that no one on your side of the argument wants to talk about, which is supervision fees. In the federal system, I’ve known people who… I knew a guy, who was charged with real estate fraud, and they made him come in and do a urinalysis every week, and 35 bucks, 40 bucks whatever it was.
Prince George’s County’s pre-trial program asked for legislation last year, which was defeated, that would have required people to pay a fee.
DOUG COLBERT: There’s no fee that I know of here in Baltimore, and if you’re concerned about saving taxpayer money, then if you allow them to be released on non-financial conditions. Pre-trial will cost a fraction, maybe, like, 1-15th of what it costs to keep someone in jail. Isn’t it true, though, that your main purpose here in being a private… I mean, this is what capitalism is, isn’t it?
MARK ADAMS: Our purpose…
DOUG COLBERT: This is making money off of people when they have no choice –- nobody wants to stay in jail, and it’s not for a day or two. Here in Maryland you stay 30 days, at least.
MARK ADAMS: Our purpose, Doug, is to get people home to their families as fast as possible. We don’t make them wait ’til eleven o’clock in the morning, when the government agencies start working.
DOUG COLBERT: Why not let the families just put the money with the court?
MARK ADAMS: Well, here’s another problem. Cash-only bails.
DOUG COLBERT: Not cash only. The same 10% that you’re putting in your pocket put it in the court. And then the court will hold onto it as security, and once the case is over, people get it back.
MARK ADAMS: The majority of folks who are unable to pay 10% cash to the court, which is bails under $2,500, they have the option of paying 10% cash directly to the court, and then it gets refunded at the end of the trial. The majority of those people call us because, one, they don’t want to go to Central Booking and deal with the judiciary, and secondly, they may not have $250, and we will finance their payments.
DOUG COLBERT: Right. You will give them the nice benefit of 10% or they can make installment payments.
MARK ADAMS: Exactly.
DOUG COLBERT: But you know what happens to those installment payments? After a while, you folks sell them to a third party, and that collector will add expenses. We have people that have come to the law school, who will be paying off money to this third party creditor, for so many years they can’t possibly overcome.
So, it’s like a racket, what you have going. It’s not… once you allow profit to determine whether people are… can be freed, and they can be freed, as Dayvon’s suggestion, with community involvement. That’s what gets people back to court. Our clients come back, because we call up somebody and say, “Look, make sure you get the person back to court.”
DAYVON LOVE: And to the question of the cost, because I think there is something positive about getting investments, and community-based organizations to collaborate with pre-trial, because I think it’s important to see pre-trial as a wedge that can move people away from the criminal justice system.
Currently, we have a system that, you know, brings that… it’s a magnet for black and brown poor folks into a criminal justice system, that all research has demonstrated has negative impacts on the people who are subject to it.
And so, why not invest in this idea of pre-trial services, with non-financial conditions, while we’re investing in community-based organizations’ ability to provide the services that you yourself said that bail bondmen don’t provide to the community, to the people they serve?
DOUG COLBERT: And keep the people in jail, who represent a danger. You will take… if it’s $250,000 bail; you are applauding for the $25,000 that you’re going to be collecting. Maybe that person’s going to go back and do harm to the woman, or child, that they just hit, or assaulted.
So, from the community point of view, and I think people need… some people, a small percentage, but some people, they should not be released.
MARK ADAMS: And the courts are not supposed to release those people. And if they are, it’s, again, it’s the judiciary that needs reforming. If someone can… and it’s an affirmative requirement that the court has to determine, that someone is not going to be a threat to the public, or to any individual, or to himself.
And I would argue that the court is not doing a good job of that. I don’t like $250,000 bails because no one pays you $25,000. That’s one of the greatest myths…
DOUG COLBERT: Well, I won’t say no one, there are some people doing very well in the drug-selling business to the poor communities. They make a lot of money. I know of people who you ask for 25 grand, they’ll pay it right out to you.
MARK ADAMS: Believe me, they’ll pay you $3,000, $4,000, and give you the opportunity to try to sue someone. Whose money all comes under the table, and who cannot… his money cannot be collected.
DOUG COLBERT: But how do you keep the community safe, when you’re collecting the 10%? How many payments they need to make notwithstanding? How is the community safe when a dangerous person gets out of jail?
MARK ADAMS: A dangerous person is a dangerous person, and if the court cannot assure itself that the person is not dangerous, they’re not supposed to release them.
DAYVON LOVE: I think a part of the issue politically, is that legislators use the arguments that I think you kind of made, in the introduction of this, about how bail bondsmen keep people safe. That they’ll use that, in our responses to us, when we say that we need non-financial conditions.
They’ll make the argument that bail bondsmen are a part of engaging public safety, which you just described, was that that’s not your responsibility. That’s the court’s responsibility.
MARK ADAMS: The mothers and grandmothers, who sign for them, probably do a better job than anyone of trying to get folks under control. And, I mean, every bail bondsman can tell you the same story. You get a call from Central Booking, or Taffson(?), or wherever, and you call the family, and the mother tells you, “I don’t want to bail him out because I’m afraid he’s going to overdose.” Or, “He’s out of control, he’s better off in there, because I know he’s safe.”
DOUG COLBERT: But you see, Taya, one of the things that you brought up before, has to do with how much power the bondsman and the insurance company has in Annapolis. You have some of our most powerful legislative leaders, who not only receive substantial contributions year after year, to make sure that the bills never get out of the Judiciary Committee.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
DOUG COLBERT: And that’s why the bills have never gotten out. We’ve been doing this for 19 years. And we’ve come close — sometimes they get out. When the Attorney General Frosh was the chair of the Senate Committee, it got out of the Senate. But then it went over to the House of Delegates, and it’s never gotten out of Joe Valario’s committee.
TAYA GRAHAM: Well, aren’t there some hidden profiteers here? You said that there’s 40% of the money goes to the bail bondsman from the bond, but 60% goes to an underwriter. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
DOUG COLBERT: Well, it’s the insurance company who is the main commercial surety. They’re the guarantors for the state. So, if somebody absconds, then at least the state has someone to turn to. The state does a very poor job of collecting money, but it’s also because the laws are written to favor the bondsman.
Not only, as Mark said, do they get an extra 90 days, when most people will come in on their own, because they missed their court date. Some might get re-arrested. It’s not like the bondsmen are going out like Hollywood, and tracking down, like whatever the Dog’s name is…
TAYA GRAHAM: Dog the Bounty Hunter…
DOUG COLBERT: Dog the Bounty Hunter –- excuse me.
MARK ADAMS: He’s the bane of our existence.
DOUG COLBERT: You know, but the idea is, that when people are getting so much money, they can spread it around. So, you can give it to the legislators, you know, some money there, and that helps. But you also can give it to other elected officials’ campaigns, too.
The bondsmen are big players, and they will do… when the Able Foundation did a report in 2002, they estimated between $100 million, and $150 million are collected from fees alone. Now, you’re talking big money here, and that’s the thing, if the public really has to offset the legislative influence, people have to get involved in this.
And it’s the people who are not likely to have, to be arrested themselves –- I’m talking specifically about the white community, I’m talking specifically about the privileged upscale community. This really is a travesty to continue a system, which requires that you pay, to regain your liberty.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, the Maryland Court of Appeals just passed a rule, so that judges should be able to forego bail for defendants, who are too poor to afford it.
DOUG COLBERT: Yeah.
TAYA GRAHAM: Why do we need additional legislation?
DOUG COLBERT: Well, what we’re looking at now is to really take money out of the equation. Do you see… the Court of Appeals and the Rules Committee, made a very good change, they told the judges, if you know somebody cannot afford the bail, then you can not set that amount.
Or, perhaps not bail at all. If you want the person to be released, there are other ways, as Dayvon’s saying, not-financial conditions, that’ll make sure the person is there.
But what we’re looking at now is, a legislative process that has protected the industry. So, there are two things that could happen in Annapolis. One, is the bondsmen could try to overturn what the Rules Committee did. I don’t think they’re going to do that, because they actually were pleased that money is still the great factor that’s going to determine it.
And the other thing is, that the public can actually say, you know what? That didn’t go far enough. We don’t want money to be in this. We want people to be freed, if they’re not a threat to the community, if they’re not a flight risk. We don’t need to put a price on their freedom. It’s like a ransom price. And we don’t want the private industry to be collecting. This is what ALEX(?) is about. This is what the free enterprise system talks about, over and over again.
What we do want instead is, we want safety, and so, for those folks who do represent a danger, it shouldn’t be a million dollars. They should not be getting released. But most of the people are working people, or poor people. They should not be giving up their hard-earned money to pay a 10% non-refundable fee.
TAYA GRAHAM: But the bail bonds industry opposed this rule, in general. What’s wrong with setting guidelines for bail? We have guidelines for sentencing.
MARK ADAMS: Well, if you set guidelines, if you say that a first-degree assault has a bail of X thousand dollars, you’re walking into a constitutional trap. Because as the prof… I don’t like to give advice to a constitutional law professor, but if you set fixed amounts for bails, which they do in a lot of the southern states, you are discriminating on income.
DOUG COLBERT: Mm-hmm. You are.
MARK ADAMS: So, I mean, theoretically, the system that we have now, if the judges were implementing it properly, would take it into consideration. And they do. Most of the time they get it right, from my perspective.
DOUG COLBERT: Well, they… from your perspective, they get it right, because most of the time they’re setting a bail. From our perspective, representing people, people don’t have the money. If you make $40,000 a year, you’re bringing home $500 gross a week. By the time you pay your bills, and take taxes out, you hardly have anything left, just to pay for your basics.
If now they have to pay… and we’re not talking here about the serious crime. Most of the crimes, Mark, your business thrives on the non-violent misdemeanors. That’s about 90%, 93% of the arrests. So, you work by volume. Of course, sometimes you’ll find somebody who’s charged with something serious, and there will be a bail and that’s, like, I guess, lottery time, jackpot. Like, ding, ding, ding, you know, you get a lot of money.
MARK ADAMS: Well, that’s… I mean, the pejorative language about our alleged… well…
DOUG COLBERT: And this is not directed at you, believe me. This is…
MARK ADAMS: I mean, first of all, your numbers on the percentages that the sureties get, as opposed to the agents, are off.
DOUG COLBERT: Okay, so tell… What’s correct?
MARK ADAMS: The typical bail bonds… I mean, I look at my receipts, and typically I will get 4% of the bail amount.
DOUG COLBERT: Right, which… okay.
MARK ADAMS: And it varies from insurer to insurer, but typically the surety company, the insurance company — that everyone likes to demonize — they’ll get 1% to 2%, with a half percent put in an escrow fund, to pay if there… and they call it a build-up fund, because it builds up through time, and if there is a catastrophic loss, they reach into that escrow fund to pay for it. So, it’s not the gold mine that everyone things it is.
TAYA GRAHAM: So, where does the rest of the money go?
MARK ADAMS: You mean the… over and above the 4%? They don’t pay it. And if you’ve ever tried to sue someone and collect from someone who doesn’t have a regular job, it’s just… you just can’t collect it.
DOUG COLBERT: Mark, when your big guys show up at my client’s home at 5:00 a.m., and at some of these places you have to weigh 275 pounds, just to be eligible for the job. The more felony convictions you have, the bigger threat and danger you are to someone whose door you’re knocking on. So, when my clients tell me somebody came…
And this, again, this may not be your field, because you’re the solo… You’re not… we’re talking here about the big guys who have the monopoly. But when they knock on the door, and they say, “Buddy, you owe some money here, and you don’t want me to come back, because the next time I come back I won’t be talking to you.”
And so, the threat is so implicit, and people have nowhere to turn. They can’t turn to law enforcement, because they fear –- they fear everyone’s in on this thing.
MARK ADAMS: First of all, Doug, the Justice Policy Institute a few years ago, did a report where someone talked about how they’ll threaten to put you back in jail for unpaid premiums. It’s relatively rare, because it costs money to put people back in jail, and I don’t know any bondsman who goes out looking to spend good money, after he’s losing money.
DOUG COLBERT: It is a threat, and people are very worried that they can lose their freedom.
MARK ADAMS: Well, there’s also a lot of urban mythology behind that. I mean, I don’t know of people who I know in the business, who go out and try to shake people down for premiums. Usually you try to cover your expense with a down payment, and the rest of it is… some of it’s on good faith, and some of it is a perpetual chase.
I mean, you get very busy the first five days of the month, because that’s when there’s money on the street. And that’s the reality of Baltimore, in every field.
DOUG COLBERT: You know how much money, though, the industry makes? Like, if you were to look up Lexington Bonds, or any of the bigger companies, do you know…? Because there’s such a difference between the solo businessperson, and the corporate, the monopoly ones.
MARK ADAMS: But Lexington, I think, is in 42 different states.
DOUG COLBERT: Yeah.
MARK ADAMS: So, I couldn’t begin to tell you what they take in, in Maryland.
DOUG COLBERT: They’re huge. I mean, and they keep expanding and they…
MARK ADAMS: Locally owned…
DOUG COLBERT: And they drive out the solo practitioner because…
MARK ADAMS: I write under Lexington.
DOUG COLBERT: Okay.
MARK ADAMS: They didn’t drive me out. I mean, they’re…
DOUG COLBERT: Well, they have driven out quite a few of the smaller folks, who I thought were doing a very decent job, but that’s a different routine. It’s like having the Mom and Pop store versus, you know, the big corporate… that pushes them out.
TAYA GRAHAM: Mark, you’re saying that, actually, bail bondsmen like yourself, are actually providing a community service.
MARK ADAMS: There are people –- and I get calls. Not so much anymore, because there’s not that much business –- but, I’ll get calls. I don’t know how to get to the courthouse. Or, I don’t have a ride to court. I drive them to court. Some people say, “You’re crazy having these, quote-unquote, ‘criminals’ in your car.”
Well, first of all, most of them I don’t consider them to be criminals. They’re just people who don’t show up, who get high. And who maybe steal from the stores or the CVS or whatever. And it’s a lot easier to just take them to court, than it is to go through a whole of, who struck John?
With the police, with warrant squads, with bounty hunters, and with family members who… there’s usually a very loud reaction on the telephone when you call a mother, and say, “Look, your son didn’t go to court.”
TAYA GRAHAM: But would you say that with cash bail, with these very high bails, that we’re placing a profit motive here in the system? Just like with the privatizing of the prison-industrial complex, with private prisons comes corruption? Couldn’t you make the same argument that with for-profit bail, that we’re encouraging corruption, and abuse of the system?
MARK ADAMS: I think there’d probably be more corruption if you had a government agency running it. It’s a different kind of corruption. It’s indifference; it’s bureaucratic empire building. When then-Senator Frosh had his bill pending, to replace the bail system with a pre-trial services agency statewide, the bureaucrats already had the top of the agency staffed. They had it all figured out, who’s going to be the director, who’s going to be the assistant, who’s going to be the vendor who provides drug testing?
And one factor that we haven’t discussed is when they mandate that people take drug testing, or do whatever, before a trial, appear for visits with a worker, these folks haven’t been convicted.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
MARK ADAMS: How do you mandate that someone has to have drug testing, when he hasn’t been convicted of anything? And inevitably, he’s going to test positive if he’s an addict, particularly an opiate addict. What do you do then? What do you do, if they flunk the pre-trial testing, and then they go to trial and get acquitted? Well, do you re-arrest them?
DAYVON LOVE: What I’m arguing for, are community-based practitioners of the fields that are relevant to the people that come in contact with pre-trial.
So, you know, whether it’s dealing with folks with trauma, right? There are community-based practitioners, are folks that deal with trauma, that are more qualified to engage the population, that would come into pre-trial services.
So, the kind of reform we’re talking about, isn’t the idea of, you know, government is going to fix the problem. It’s going to be the idea that community is the centerpiece of fixing the problem. And a private industry; the bail bond industry is not the solution to it…
MARK ADAMS: But we are of the community.
DAYVON LOVE: …and government is not.
MARK ADAMS: I’ve never lived anywhere but Baltimore City.
DOUG COLBERT: Mark, what have you done to contribute to community with all this $100 million, $150 million… what have you given back to the community?
MARK ADAMS: Believe me if I had $150 million, I’d…
DOUG COLBERT: Not you, Mark Adams. The reason that you’re the representative of the industry is because you put the best face on an industry that thrives on money. I mean, I’ve known you for years. It’s understandable why you would be in this position now.
But I’m talking about, with all this money that’s been collected within the industry, what have you given back to Sandtown-Winchester? What have you given back to some of the poorest neighborhoods? And the answer is probably nothing, or very little. Maybe… maybe you will give somebody a ride, or something.
MARK ADAMS: I can’t speak for the entire industry. But we have very generous people in this industry. The demonization really isn’t accurate. There are people who sponsor Little Leagues. I know one guy who sponsors a Little League, and he said, “Don’t use my name, because I don’t want children playing baseball with Bail Bonds written on their back. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
DAYVON LOVE: But even think about that. I mean, I think that’s part of the conundrum here, is that an industry makes profitable, primarily black and brown folks being incarcerated, as a mechanism for the kind of income generation that will support those kinds of things.
As opposed to getting investments, and community-based organizations that might involve a person helping with a program…
MARK ADAMS: But who’s going to pay for the community-based stuff, though? Who pays for it?
DAYVON LOVE: What I’m saying is that the investments that need to be made, that would offset the amount that it costs to incarcerate people pre-trial, because we all know that incarcerating people costs a lot more than it does than to provide those services.
So, what I’m saying is, instead of spending the money on incarcerating folks, and instead of investing in an industry that doesn’t have formal mechanisms of accountability to the community, right? And when I say formal mechanisms, what I’m saying is that the community-based organizations that are a part of the community, and the community has input on the kind of services and the things that they do in their neighborhoods.
What I’m saying is, that a private industry, above and beyond just individual bail bondsmen, but the industry itself, it’s not an industry that is dedicated to the uplift of the community. That’s not the nature of the enterprise.
And so, what we need is a community-based alternative that avoids what you rightly describe, as the problem with government bureaucracy, right? But the solution primarily, is the community itself, and the whole litany of services, and programmatic thrusts that the community can provide better than the bail bond industry, and better than, kind of your top-down government services.
MARK ADAMS: Well, give me an example of where it’s happening.
TAYA GRAHAM: Do you know what? I’m going to have to make what Dayvon said so eloquently there the last word.
I want to thank all of my guests. I want to thank you, Mark Adams, Dayvon Love, Professor Doug Colbert, thank you so much for joining me.
And I want to thank you for joining The Real Baltimore. I’m Taya Graham, your host.