Under the glare of neon signs and unforgiving fluorescent office lights, bail agents are spending time processing a new California law signed just days ago by Gov. Jerry Brown that could decimate their industry.
The new system, which would virtually eliminate the payment of money as a condition of release, could spell doom for not only bail agents, bounty hunters and surety companies across the state, but also a $2-billion bail industry nationwide. Reform in California, which holds roughly a quarter of the market, could prompt other states to follow suit, bail groups and lobbyists said.
Reaction has been swift: Just a day after Brown signed the bill into law, bail associations filed a voter referendum in an attempt to block it, asking for support from the very criminal justice groups and activists they’ve long been at odds with. Now agents say they are scrambling to find new careers, closing up shop or weighing whether to move their businesses out of state.
In Los Angeles County, home to the largest jail system in the country, Lipstick Bail Bonds co-owner Teresa Golt said she expects to see storefronts shutter up and down bail row.
“We are done. We are 100% done,” said Golt, who runs the business with her sister, Lisa Golt. “There is no such thing as California bail agents anymore.”
After 19 years in business together, the sisters plan to write bonds until the law takes effect — in October 2019, should the referendum effort fail. Then they would shut down four offices in Southern California, repaint a fleet of 29 vehicles and start a new business in private security.
In Sacramento, Kellie Weatherby of Atlantis Bail Bonds considered whether to move on from an industry she has been a part of for 30 years.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know,” said Weatherby, whose father, Kenneth J. Weatherby, was also a bail agent. “It’s upsetting. We are concerned as a business, we are concerned as citizens.”
The landmark new law, brokered between state lawmakers, the governor and California’s top judge, grants greater power to courts and probation departments to decide who should remain incarcerated ahead of trial. Under the new system, many people will be let go solely on a promise to return to court, while others could be placed on monitoring devices or remain incarcerated without any possibility of release under a practice known as “preventive detention.”
The American Bail Coalition, along with bail lobbying and crime victims groups, have roughly three months to submit to the state the estimated 366,000 signatures needed to qualify the referendum for the November 2020 ballot. Organizers say they are confident in their chances to put the measure before voters, stalling implementation of the law until that time.
“This is Step 1,” said Jeffrey Clayton, a spokesman for the effort and director of the American Bail Coalition. “Step 2 is all the various legal challenges that are going to get filed if this is going to become law.”
Some in the business warned of possible consequences of the new bail system that would be unfavorable to defendants. As bail companies and sureties attempt to stay afloat, they said, some agents could write more bonds and aggressively collect on debts in a final push for profits before industry extinction.
“Trust and believe [bail agents] are going to attack people’s livelihood and credit,” said Miles Soto, a former bail consultant and private investigator in Southern California. “Because if bail goes away, the one thing that will still be here a little longer is [debt] recovery, because surety companies will need to clear all of their liabilities.”
Under the current system, judges must factor in a defendant’s ability to pay as they set bail according to lists of criminal offenses and their fixed fees. If a defendant is unable to post the amount in advance, a nonrefundable fee — typically 10% or less of that amount — can be paid to a bail company to front the money.
Money bail provides an incentive for people to come back to court, and bail bond companies help ensure they do at no cost to taxpayers, members of the industry argue. Bail agents and bounty hunters remind defendants of court appearances, find offenders who attempt to jump bail and develop relationships with clients who cycle in and out of jail, devoting time and resources that courts and probation offices are unlikely to have, they said.
“We answer our phones at 3, 4, 5 in the morning,” Golt said. “What government employee is going to do that?”
Jeff Stanley, who owns Bad Boys Bail Bonds, which has offices in Los Angeles and across the state, said bail agents perform a range of services, including spending time counseling defendants’ families.
“We know all the aspects of their lives,” he said. “Bail bond agents are in the trenches with them.”
For some, the business is personal. Some minority bail company owners said they set up their businesses because they felt the needs of black and Latino defendants were not being served.
Weatherby said she was motivated to open her own business after watching her father take calls from clients at all hours. He wouldn’t just bail them out, she said, he would also explain court records, bank accounts and utility bills.
“He would say, ‘You have to help people out sometimes,’ ” she recalled, adding that she does the same for her clients and knows other agents who do as well. “There are some quality people in this business.”
But by the time California lawmakers launched their effort to transform the state’s bail system in late 2016, the commercial bail bond industry had expanded beyond the small businesses and bargain storefronts near downtown jails and disadvantaged neighborhoods.
A 2017 study by the American Civil Liberties Union and Color of Change, a left-leaning civil rights group, found that 10 global insurance companies underwrote nearly all of $14 billion in bail bonds issued nationwide. Another report by the UCLA School of Law analyzed more than 100 bail contracts tied to large sureties and found that the fine print often gave agents broad discretion to return defendants to jail or weigh them down with hidden fees and gave the sureties control over the life savings, homes and vehicles families offered as collateral.
In California, the rise in complaints about the bail industry was so significant that some bail and recovery agents favored changing the system, calling for better licensing, training and oversight.
Among those who faced complaints are the Golts, who were sued in 2013 by a man who said he was injured when they tried to detain him with pepper spray and a stun gun. The Golts said the claims were false, and a judge dismissed the lawsuit. The man who accused them is now in prison for killing his uncle.
“I always tell people the bail business is disgusting and wonderful,” Soto said. “Some bail agents are of the worst caliber. But when used correctly, bail can be used to help people in a wonderful way.”
Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) authored the new law as part of an ambitious effort to overhaul a system they said punished the poor.
At the time the bill was introduced, the median bail amount in California was $50,000, five times higher than the median amount nationwide. Other states, including New Jersey and Maryland, had also scaled back their use of the practice. Debate over the issue raged in courts, with cities and counties across the country facing lawsuits over policies that some legal experts said turned jails into modern-day debtors' prisons.
The legislation’s passage should have been a victory for criminal justice reform advocates who for years sought to eliminate money bail. But some early backers, including the ACLU of Northern California, dropped their support amid concerns that the final version of the bill would allow judges to incarcerate more people for longer periods of time. They said it also did not include enough oversight over risk assessment tools, technological analyses that rely on computer algorithms to predict a person’s likelihood to break the law again, which studies have found can exhibit bias against communities of color.
Bail agents say they have received calls from defense lawyers and civil rights groups, including at least two groups in Los Angeles, who have shown an interest in joining the effort to oppose the new law.
“I think eventually it will be a lot more than just the bail industry,” Clayton said of the voter referendum.
The ACLU on Friday declined to comment on whether it would join the industry’s efforts. Civil rights groups are waiting on the state Supreme Court to review a ruling on a judge’s authority to set bail.
John Raphling, a senior researcher with the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, said he thought it was unlikely that activists who helped push the overhaul and are now unhappy with the result would end up working with bail agents.
“I would have to see what they are putting out there,” he said of the bail industry referendum. “We would have to see if there is something that would reduce inequities, but also reduce incarceration. If it did those things, then we would have to give it a good, hard look.”