Bail has become the primary way that American defendants get out of jail before trial, but the industry faces increasing pressure for change. Aside from the Philippines, the United States is the only country that uses a commercial bail system. A handful of states, most recently California, have abolished it, along with bail bond agents and bounty hunters.
Opponents of bail argue that it creates a two-tiered justice system: Poor defendants sit in jail or pay nonrefundable fees to bail bond companies, whereas those able to post the full bail amount walk out and have their funds returned.
Additionally, defendants who are held in jail tend to receive worse resolutions to their cases than those charged with similar crimes who were released, said Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County’s chief public defender.
“Poor people stay in jail, and people with money get out, and the results are different because of that,” she said. “The justice they get is different, and that is fundamentally unfair.”
But $14 billion worth of bail bonds are underwritten annually, at very low risk of loss, making those who profit resistant to change. Supporters argue that bail is a very effective way of ensuring that defendants get to court, at no cost to taxpayers. They warn that alternative systems shift the cost burden of apprehending bail jumpers to law enforcement and can increase the number of criminals on the street.
Roughly 10 percent of defendants miss their court hearings in Minnesota, which means that there are more than 30,000 people with active warrants for failing to appear.
But Moriarty said most of these people face minor charges and live in challenging circumstances. Addictions, poor health and mental illness impede the ability to keep appointments. So do mundane conflicts with work, or a lack of transportation or child care. A new text and e-mail reminder system in Hennepin County has reduced the failure-to-appear rates of defendants who were reached by roughly a quarter, she said.