There are prisons and there are jails. The two differ.

Prisons are where sentenced offenders get sent after trial, and they are run by the state.

Jails are where offenders go before trial, and they are run by the county. All offenders, at least for a short while, will go to jail and get booked. If they can post bail they’re out until court date. If they can’t afford it, they remain until their day in court … which can sometimes be many, many months. (It should be said, some short-term sentences are served in local jails).

Across the street from the county jail in Lubbock, Texas, is a row of one-story offices housing Lubbock's bond companies. There are about a dozen bail bond companies in this city of 250,000. © Katie Hayes for NPR


Last week, Laura Sullivan‘s sterling three-part report on the US’ broken bail system ran on NPR. Sullivan writes it LARGE: Money rules; the bond system is simple market capitalism. It favours the rich and punishes the poor.

Research shows that those who post bail serve less time post-trial. This is for many reasons, but mainly because once released, the accused can prove to the court (between arrest and trial) that they can stay straight; hold down a job; and publicly respond to their transgression in a socially-agreeable manner, in other words, attempt whatever is necessary to please the court.

However, there are half-a-million people locked-up in US jails either waiting or unable to pay bail. This is more criminal than any act these half-a-million may have committed. REMEMBER: Bail is not granted to violent or dangerous suspects, and the majority of those jailed are non-violent criminals usually for a small-victimless crimes (minor traffic infraction, petty theft).

Amounts differ to post bail differ, sometimes being as low as $50 (that’s a $10 down-payment to a bondsmen on a $500 bail).

Leslie Chew, in Lubbock County Jail for theft, said his $3,500 bail was "like a million dollars to me." © Laura Sullivan for NPR

The result is that cases such as Leslie Chew’s cost the tax payer over $7,000 for 185 days of incarceration … all because he couldn’t afford the $350 down-payment for bail. His crime? Stealing $120 worth of blankets because he was suffering the cold sleeping in the back of his station wagon.

Chew is typical of many stuck in the system. But the system has alternatives. Offenders could be released on trust (a practice that used to be common) and expected to show up for court OR they could be part of pre-trial release programs using probation officers and tagging technology.

Pre-tirla release programs cost only between $2-$7/day. Compare that to $38-$115/day to house an inmate. Statistics have shown pre-trial release programs effective and offenders show up for court as regularly as those on bail.

In total the broken bail bond system costs US tax-payers $9billion/year!


NPR describes, ‘Ken Herzog, manager of Trammel’s Lubbock Bail Bond for over 25 years, sees an average of six people a day who need to be bonded out of jail. His bonding company currently has between 2,500 and 3,000 active accounts.’ Because they cannot secure new accounts, the bail bond industry sees pre-trial release programs as direct completion. Bail-bondsmen have organised strong lobbying groups in counties where alternative pre-trial release programs were in use.

As an example, Sullivan points to Broward County, Florida:

Bail bonding became political in Broward [and] sent shock waves through pretrial programs across the country. Here in Broward, bondsmen pushed hard for a new county ordinance that now limits the pretrial program. Now industry experts say powerful bail lobbying groups have begun using Broward as a road map of how to squash similar programs elsewhere, even though public records show the programs have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

This gutting was all the more catastrophic because the pre-trial release program was so successful. It alleviated jail overcrowding that was deemed by a judge as unconstitutional.

Instead of building a new $70 million jail as they had proposed, county commissioners voted to expand pre-trial release, letting more inmates out on supervised release. Within a year, the jail population plunged, so much so that the sheriff closed an entire wing. It saved taxpayers $20 million a year.

And, according to court records, the defendants were still showing up for court.


The Broward ordinance passed and, in so doing, slashed the number of defendants eligible for the pre-trial release program by hundreds.

Who, they wondered, could possibly be against a demonstrably successful program? Follow the money:

In Broward County, 135 bail bondsmen amassed and hired a lobbyist, Rob Book:

“To be perfectly arrogant about it, I’m considered if not the best, [then] one of the best in the state,” says Book. He has been lobbying for bondsmen in Florida for more than a decade.

According to campaign records, Book and the rest of Broward’s bondsmen spread almost $23,000 across the council in the year before the bill was passed. Fifteen bondsmen cut checks worth more than $5,000 to commissioner and now-county Mayor Ken Keechl just five days before the vote.


Sometimes, I am carefully worded. I work with prisoners, correctional officers, DoC administrative staff and activists weekly – I must be diplomatic.

But I have no care for the bail-bond business nor the corrupt bondsmen and bought politicians of Broward County, Florida.

Their system is self-serving. It does nothing to protect NOR serve. It is overly punitive. The bondsmen are hacks and the politicians they bought are contemptible.

I hope that the backhanded decision-making in Broward is not typical, but I fear it is not isolated. Selfish, zealous systems such as those Laura Sullivan exposed are ruled by revenge, fear-emotion and profit.

The bail-bond system of America is on this evidence devoid of progressive policy. And, when a small light of common sense policy rears its head based on solid figures and a reduced bottom-line, still well-heeled and big-footed buffoons can kick it all to shit.



Part One: Bail Burden Keeps U.S. Jails Stuffed With Inmates
Part Two: Inmates Who Can’t Make Bail Face Stark Options
Part Three: Bondsman Lobby Targets Pretrial Release Programs

All brought to you by Laura Sullivan

Thanks to Jim Johnson for alerting me on this.