Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The American Exception

Did you realize that bail bonds for profit-a staple of the American criminal justice system-are illegal in most of the rest of the world? I had no idea:

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.

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.

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.

Who knew? Given that the bail bond system is well ingrained in the criminal justice system overall, it's hard to imagine anything else. There's no question that the system impacts the poor disproportionately, as wealthier defendants simply post their own bond with the court and don't have to worry about being out a fee (as long as they show up) or having liens put on their property to ensure their appearances. Of course the system also guarantees that a lot of these defendants show up for court proceedings, as bail bondsmen have time and incentive to track them down when they don't.


dmarks said...

Interesting. I've seen many a "bail bond ghetto" that springs up in the neighborhood near any jail.

Nat-Wu said...

Just one of the many ways we are not the beacon of hope for the free world we always thought we were. However, it does give rise to Dog the Bounty Hunger so it can't be all bad.