California Ends Bail, Risks $2B Bail Bond Industry

The Golden State is the first to abolish cash bail.

On Aug. 29, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will eliminate bail for suspects awaiting trial as part of the California Money Bail Reform Act. The practice of requiring cash bail has long been criticized for favoring the wealthy, who could pay to remain free pending trial, whereas poorer suspects remained in custody.

When the bill becomes law in 2019, judges in California will use an algorithm to determine who will be detained and who will be released. The system is intended to eliminate the current bias in favor of those who can afford to post bail. The algorithm will assess factors such as the seriousness of the crime and how likely offenders are to show up for their next court date.

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Washington, D.C., has a cashless bail system, and other states, including Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and New York are considering legislation that would reduce or eliminate cash bail in their courts.

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The $2B Bail Bond Industry

The bail bond services industry is fighting the cashless bail trend, which would eliminate the need for bail bonds, and would eliminate the industry if it were adopted nationwide. The industry sees revenue exceed $2 billion annually, according to industry research firm IBISWorld, and employs more than 23,000 people. In California alone, the new bill could affect 7,000 jobs, NPR reported. The bail industry is likely to sue, the news outlet reported.

The reform bill will empower judges to decide who gets released from jail as they await trial, a change that the American Civil Liberties Union of California said gives judges too much discretion.

How Bail Works

Under the current cash bail system, a defendant can get a bail bond for 10 percent of the bail amount. So, a defendant being held on $250,000 bail can pay $25,000 to a bail bond company, which pays the bail, so the defendant can be released. If the defendant shows up for their court date, the bail is refunded to the bail bond company, but it keeps the $25,000 the defendant paid them.

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Bail Bonds in Entertainment

The bail bonds industry employs bail recovery agents, often referred to as bounty hunters, to track down those who fail to appear in court, risking the bail bond that has been tendered. Bounty hunters have been depicted in TV shows and books, sometimes as tough guys and sometimes as law enforcement wannabes. “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” an A&E reality show followed a bounty hunter for four seasons, reportedly grossing $400 million. And author Janet Evanovich has sold 75 million copies of her books featuring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, according to Forbes.

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