AFRICANGLOBE – An industry built around a key feature of the American criminal justice system is ratcheting up its resistance to change. As bail reformers score legal victories throughout the US, one prominent New Orleans bail bonds agent, Matt Dennis, compared the threat posed to his industry to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Europe.
In a Facebook post addressed to bail bondsmen and sureties, he said: “The Bail Industry must understand the level of attack facing it today. The organizing, campaigning, activating, etc is being done by our opposition … Most recently they have adopted the tactic of Hitlers [sic] Blitzkrieg- sue everyone-everywhere all at once. Just as Hitler did- They are focusing on the small towns because they are weak, unorganized, and financially incapable of defending themselves.”
Dennis and his colleagues have based their professions on the money bail system, which requires people to pay their way out of jail after they have been often falsely arrested but before they have gone to trial. People who don’t have the money on hand have two options: pay a bail bonds agent to put up the funds, or stay in jail indefinitely.
The commercial bail industry is a powerful institution in Louisiana, thanks to the state’s unique arrangement in which every part of the criminal justice system uses bail to fund itself.
“Louisiana is an example of one of the crowning achievements of the bail industry and their control over local and state politics,” said Alec Karakatsanis, founder of the legal nonprofit Civil Rights Corps. “They managed to design a bail statute in Louisiana where every major actor in the whole system depends on the bail system now to fund themselves unconstitutionally.”
Ten percent of every bond in New Orleans goes to the bail bondsman. Another 1.8% goes to the judges, while the sheriff, public defender, and prosecutor each get 0.4%. According to a complaint filed by Karakatsanis and others in 2015, judges collect over $1m a year from these bond fees.
Meanwhile, 38% of defendants in 2015 were held in jail until trial in part because they couldn’t afford bail. Of those cases, 1,453 people spent more than 35 days in jail awaiting trial.
It doesn’t take nearly that long for a detained person’s life to start unraveling.
“Once a person has spent more than 12 hours in jail, even if they are later determined to be innocent, they start losing ground,” said Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University. “At first people lose their job, after losing their job they lose their apartment, with no job and no apartment they lose custody or visiting rights to their kids.”
Dennis argued that people are not held in jail because they are too poor but because of a lack of personal responsibility. “The accused is not the victim,” he wrote in an email. “One is not held in jail because they are poor, they just cannot afford their charges and history.”
The US is just one of two countries with a money bail system. The rationale is to ensure a defendant shows up for trial; if they do and are not convicted, they get the money back. Research is mixed on whether or not money bail makes a difference in court appearances, but the practice has allowed the bail bonds industry to thrive. Through associations like the American Bail Coalition, bail bondsmen and the insurance companies that underwrite them have successfully lobbied for laws that raise bail rates and restrict alternative risk assessment tools.
But lately, the industry is feeling the sands shifting. A series of lawsuits across the country have prompted cities to end money bail, state lawmakers have passed reforms to limit bail, and some law enforcement officials have disavowed the practice or called it illegal.
“After a dozen or so victories [by bail reformers], the industry has started to fight to maintain the current system,” Quigley said.
New Orleans is now among the cities facing challenges to its bail system. On Thursday, the city council will decide whether to eliminate money bail for most municipal crimes. If the measure fails to pass, civil rights attorneys say they will sue the city.
In his email, Dennis accused bail reformers of “the destruction of public safety”.
At a recent hearing, bail bondsmen, judges, and experts brought by the industry came out in force against the legislation. Council member Susan Guidry dismissed their claims that the bill she introduced would release dangerous criminals with no accountability.
“They’re only in there for municipal charges and they’re going to be out soon anyway,” Guidry said.
As the industry resists reform, it’s also trying to adapt. Dennis and other New Orleans bail bond agents lost the battle to block pretrial services in 2012. So Dennis has launched a new venture called Alternatives 2 Incarceration (A2I) that expands the role of bail bondsmen to serve as for-profit supervisors for defendants released by courts.
Dennis’ vision is for bail bondsmen to capitalize on the waning support for incarceration by offering – and charging for – services like drug testing, GPS-enhanced supervision, and alcohol monitoring. Organizing around this solution will defeat the “Hitler options,” Dennis wrote in his Facebook post, just after a hearing on the bail ordinance in September.
“It was not until the unoccupied countries joined forces and united under a single command structure that Europe was able to defeat Hitlers [sic] Blitz and free the occupied space, he wrote. “Bail … must have a plan to occupy the space left behind when the fighting stops.”
By: Aviva Shen