FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Wayne Spath is a bail bondsman, which means he is an insurance salesman, a social worker, a lightly regulated law enforcement agent, a real estate appraiser and a for-profit wing of the American justice system.
American ExceptionLiberty for Sale
This series of articles examines commonplace aspects of the American justice system that are actually unique in the world.
What he does, which is posting bail for people accused of crimes in exchange for a fee, is all but unknown in the rest of the world. In England, Canada and other countries, agreeing to pay a defendant’s bond in exchange for money is a crime akin to witness tampering or bribing a juror a form of obstruction of justice.
Mr. Spath, who is burly, gregarious and intense, owns Brandy Bail Bonds, and he sees his clients in a pleasant and sterile office building just down the street from the courthouse here. But for the handcuffs on the sign out front, it could be a dentist’s office.
“I’ve got to run, but I’ll never leave you in jail,” Mr. Spath said, greeting a frequent customer in his reception area one morning a couple of weeks ago. He turned to a second man and said, “Now, don’t you miss court on me.”
Other countries almost universally reject and condemn Mr. Spath’s trade, in which defendants who are presumed innocent but cannot make bail on their own pay an outsider a nonrefundable fee for their freedom.
“It’s a very American invention,” John Goldkamp, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, said of the commercial bail bond system. “It’s really the only place in the criminal justice system where a liberty decision is governed by a profit-making businessman who will or will not take your business.”
Although the system is remarkably effective at what it does, four states Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin have abolished commercial bail bonds, relying instead on systems that require deposits to courts instead of payments to private businesses, or that simply trust defendants to return for trial.
Most of the legal establishment, including the American Bar Association and the National District Attorneys Association, hates the bail bond business, saying it discriminates against poor and middle-class defendants, does nothing for public safety, and usurps decisions that ought to be made by the justice system.
Here as in many other areas of the law, the United States goes it alone. American law is, by international standards, a series of innovations and exceptions. From the central role played by juries in civil cases to the election of judges to punitive damages to the disproportionate number of people in prison, the United States has charted a distinctive and idiosyncratic legal path.
Bail is meant to make sure defendants show up for trial. It has ancient roots in English common law, which relied on sworn promises and on pledges of land or property from the defendants or their relatives to make sure they did not flee.
America’s open frontier and entrepreneurial spirit injected an innovation into the process: by the early 1800s, private businesses were allowed to post bail in exchange for payments from the defendants and the promise that they would hunt down the defendants and return them if they failed to appear.
Commercial bail bond companies dominate the pretrial release systems of only two nations, the United States and the Philippines.
The flaw in the system most often cited by critics is that defendants who have not been convicted of a crime and who turn up for every court appearance are nonetheless required to pay a nonrefundable fee to a private business, assuming they do not want to remain in jail.
“Life is not fair, and I probably would feel the same way if I were a defendant,” said Bill Kreins, a spokesman for the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, a trade group. “But the system is the best in world.”
The system costs taxpayers nothing, Mr. Kreins said, and it is exceptionally effective at ensuring that defendants appear for court.
Mr. Spath’s experience confirms that.
If Mr. Spath considers a potential client a good risk, he will post bail in exchange for a nonrefundable 10 percent fee. In a 35-month period ending in November, his records show, Mr. Spath posted about $37 million in bonds 7,934 of them. That would suggest revenues of about $1.3 million a year, given his fee.
Mr. Spath, who is 62, has seven bail agents working for him, including his daughters Tia and Mia. “It probably costs me 50 grand a month to run this business,” he said.
Mr. Spath hounds his clients relentlessly to make sure they appear for court. If they do not, he must pay the court the full amount unless he can find them and bring them back in short order.
Only 434 of his clients failed to appear for a court date over that period, and Mr. Spath straightened out 338 of those cases within the 60 days allowed by Florida law. In the end, he had to pay up only 76 times.
That is a failure rate of less than 1 percent.
But he had just taken a $100,000 hit. “Everything I worked for this year, I lost because of that one guy,” he said. “If I write a bad bond, it takes me 17 to make it right.”
Mr. Spath had thought the defendant, accused of drug trafficking, was a good bet because he had been cooperating with the government. The defendant is in Brazil now, but Mr. Spath is very good at finding people, and he is not giving up. He is working travel records, phone companies and a former girlfriend, and he is getting closer.
He sometimes requires collateral in addition to his fee, and has accepted rugs, an airplane and a winning Rhode Island lottery ticket. But mostly he is interested in houses.
“In this business, you have to understand real estate,” Mr. Spath said. When the real estate market goes south, he said, bail bondsmen get hurt.
According to the Justice Department and academic studies, the clients of commercial bail bond agencies are more likely to appear for court in the first place and more likely to be captured if they flee than those released under other forms of supervision.
That may be because bail bond companies have financial incentives and choose their clients carefully. They also have more power. In many states, bond enforcement agents, sometimes called bounty hunters, may break into homes of defendants without a warrant, temporarily imprison them and move them across state lines without entering into the extradition process.
Still, critics say, efficiency and business considerations should not trump the evenhanded application of justice.
The experiences in states that have abolished commercial bail bonds, prosecutors say, have been mixed.
“The bail bond system is rife with corruption,” said Joshua Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore. Since bond companies do not compete on price, they have every incentive to collude with lawyers, the police, jail officials and even judges to make sure that bail is high and that attractive clients are funneled to them.
Mr. Kreins, the industry spokesman, acknowledged scandals in Illinois, where “basically all the agents were in collusion with the judges,” and in Louisiana, where sheriffs were also in the mix.
“We have acted responsibly every time an incident has occurred to seek stronger legislation,” Mr. Kreins said. Mr. Marquis, the Oregon prosecutor, said doing away with commercial bonds had affected the justice system in a negative way as well. “The fact of the matter is,” he said, “that in states like Oregon the failure-to-appear rate has skyrocketed.” Oregon uses a combination of court deposits, promises to appear and restrictions on where defendants can live and work.
The rest of the world considers the American system a warning of how not to set up a pretrial release system, F. E. Devine wrote in “Commercial Bail Bonding,” a 1991 book that remains the only comprehensive international survey of the subject.
He said that courts in Australia, India and South Africa had disciplined lawyers for professional misconduct for setting up commercial bail arrangements.
Other countries use a mix of methods to ensure that defendants appear for trial.
Some simply keep defendants in jail until trial. Others ask defendants to promise to turn up for trial. Some make failure to appear a separate crime. Some impose strict conditions on release, like reporting to the police frequently. Some make defendants liable for a given sum should they fail to appear but do not collect it up front. Others require a deposit in cash from the defendant, family members or friends, which is returned when the defendant appears.
But injecting money into the equation, even without the bond company’s fee, is the exception. “Even purged of commercialism, most countries avoid a bail system based chiefly on financial security deposits,” Mr. Devine wrote.
In the United States, the use of commercial bail bonds is rising, and they became the most popular form of pretrial release in 1998. More than 40 percent of felony defendants released before trial paid a bail bond company in 2004, up from 24 percent a decade earlier, according to the Justice Department.
Forty percent of people released on bail are eventually acquitted or have the charges against them dropped. Quite a few of them paid a substantial and nonrefundable fee to remain free in the meantime.
Kate Santana, a 20-year-old waitress, had spent eight days in jail when she found her way to Mr. Spath.
“Me and my husband got into a fight,” Ms. Santana explained, “and the cops were called and I was arrested because there was a bite mark on his shoulder.”
Mr. Spath took her $200 and posted her $2,000 bail. “I checked her criminal history out,” he said. “I found out she was a mother and really she shouldn’t be in jail.”
But when a friend of a man accused of identity theft and perjury turned up seeking a $16,000 bond, Mr. Spath took a different attitude. “You bet your fanny I’m going to take collateral,” he said. “I’ll take his firstborn.”
Mr. Spath is not much concerned with how the rest of the world views commercial bail bonds, but he was worked up about recent talk of a greater government role in pretrial release here in Broward County.
“Here’s what everybody forgets,” he said. “The taxpayers have to pay for these programs. Why should they pay for them? Why should they? When we can provide the same service for free. I’d rather see the money spent in parks, mental health issues, the homeless. Let the private sector do it. We do it better.”