Traditionally, the world of bail bonds has been one of the few recession-proof industries in the United States. Arrests take place in good economic times as well as bad, and because most arrestees are unable to immediately furnish several thousand dollars cash to ensure their freedom, they must seek the services of a bail bondsman. However, some recent changes in state legislation may be cutting into the bail bond industry's bottom line. Read on to learn more about this business, as well as the potential ripple effect of changes in the criminal law.
What is bail?
When you're arrested and charged with a crime, you'll go before a judge in an initial hearing to determine whether probable cause existed for your arrest and to set a bail amount. Although a few offenses (like murder) may allow you to be held without bail, in the vast majority of cases, the judge will set bail in a specific dollar amount. You or someone on your behalf must furnish these funds to the jail -- and once the funds are provided, you will be released from custody until the conclusion of your trial.
By setting bail, the court can help ensure that you appear for all scheduled hearings and other court proceedings. If you fail to appear for a hearing, your bail will be revoked and whatever funds furnished to the court for your release from jail will be relinquished. You will also likely be remanded to jail until your trial is over.
For minor cases or petty misdemeanors, bail amounts are generally set at a low level -- $500 to $1,000. However, for other crimes, bail may be set at $10,000 or more. If you or a family member cannot come up with the full amount needed, this is where a bail bondsman can provide assistance.
How does a bail bond work?
A bail bondsman works on your behalf to secure the funds needed for your bail. When obtaining a bail bond, you'll generally provide the bondsman with at least 10 percent of your bail amount in cash or property (such as the deed to your home or title to your car). These funds are kept by the bondsman as payment for his or her services. The bondsman will then execute a bond with the court to ensure your return for all legal proceedings. Because the bail bondsman is using his or her own money, you no longer need to post any additional bail with the court.
Because the bail bondsman is taking on liability on your behalf, he or she may even attempt to physically track you down to ensure that you attend court proceedings. If you are without transportation, your bail bondsman may be able to drive you to court (often for an additional fee).
How have changes in criminal legislation affected the bail bond industry?
Several states have recently recodified their criminal laws to decrease the potential penalties for certain misdemeanor and minor drug offenses. Where certain offenses would previously have resulted in arrest, many are now treated more like a traffic violation -- the police officer will issue a citation, and the defendant will pay any amount due by mail. In other states, certain white collar felonies are now considered misdemeanor offenses. Judges are often empowered to release misdemeanor defendants with no bail required.
In California, this recodification has severely decreased the income of bail bondsmen statewide. Recent estimates indicate that since the passage of this law, bail bondsmen have suffered a nearly 40 percent reduction in business. This means that, in order to stay afloat, bail bondsmen at companies like Absolute Bail Bonds may need to raise the percentage of bond collected as a fee from the traditional 10 percent to 20 percent or more. If this reduction in business begins to harm the local economy, legislators may consider amending the bail schedule so that bail amounts for more serious crimes are set at a much higher level.