Behind the Bail
It was early in sociology professor Joshua Page's new research project when he got a call that would prove vital in how he understood his topic. "Josh," the woman on the other end of the line said, "Why is my son on television?"
The man on television had been arrested and it was in that moment that Page's new profession hit home: He was truly a bail bond agent now.
Understudied But Overarching
While mass incarceration in the US has been the subject of much debate, less attention has been paid to what Page calls "the front end” of the system, in other words, what happens from the moment a person gets arrested. And there is a particular dearth of knowledge around the the bail bond industry.
"It's this incredibly important and unique institution," he says, "And there is very little—next to no—social science on it."
The US, in fact, is one of only two countries in the world with private, for-profit bail bonds. In this system, after arrest, the court either releases individuals on their own recognizance or requires them to post monetary bail. Since most defendants cannot afford the full amount of their bail, they enlist a bail company's assistance. This private company charges a premium (typically 10 percent of the bail) of defendants and co-signers and assumes responsibility for ensuring the defendant shows up for court.
Page explains that the number of those affected by the bail industry is exponentially more than those affected by actual imprisonment.
"About 40 percent of the people who get out on bail eventually have their charges dropped or aren't convicted. And the vast majority of people that are convicted are plea bargained and get a fine or probation or a work program, so they're not going to prison. But most of them at one point were up for bail."
The scale is enormous and its impact disturbing. It is estimated that two-thirds of the 450,000 people held in American jails are awaiting trial. The vast majority (roughly five out of six) is behind bars because they are denied release for legal or bureaucratic reasons (like having a probation violation) or they cannot afford bail. Meanwhile, an estimated 14,000 US commercial bail agents secure the release of more than two million defendants annually. Bail is now the dominant method for obtaining pretrial release, surpassing release on recognizance in 1998, and bail amounts set by judges have risen steadily.
Research shows that defendants—those "five out of six"—who are unable to make bail have a much harder time navigating the criminal justice system. They are much more likely to be convicted, receive longer prison sentences, and have much less success in plea bargaining compared to similarly-situated defendants who secure release on bond.
A Default Service
Page's will be the first sociological study conducted inside the commercial bail industry.
"I wanted to understand how the bail bond industry operates. How bail bond agents make decisions about who to let out. How do they decide who is a good cosigner or not, how do they monitor people, there was just very little about why the industry works how it does."
It was difficult getting a foot in the door, because despite its wide impact on the public legal system, it is a sometimes-stigmatized private industry whose members are often reticent to open up. That is what led Page to take the leap and become a part-time bail bondsman for a year. "I come from an academic tradition that says that to really understand something you have to do it, especially the emotional, cognitive investment in it."
"From an outsider’s perspective you might say, 'They do what they do because they want to make money,'" he explains, "Well that's true but it's much more complicated than that. Ethnography forces you into making connections and taking people seriously."
It was an overwhelming and hectic experience at times, Page admits, but one which he says proved illuminating. Not only did he get an insider's view of a bail bond agent's decision-making and risk analysis, he saw parts of the job that were nowhere on the job description, what he calls "default services."
The vast majority of people that bail agents work with are those who are working with public defenders, many of whom are overwhelmed with cases and have little time to answer questions from defendants or their families. "That's why that mother was calling me," he says, "I was the one person in the system she could call at that moment."
Citing things like prohibitively expensive phone calls from jail, Page says he became a resource for family members, "That was a side I didn't expect, how [bail bond agencies] have come to be default service providers."
Page has completed the ethnographic part of his research, and will now move on to interviews and analysis.
He expects to write up the research in the coming years and expand from what he learned on the job to larger questions like how this uniquely American institution helps us understand key US developments, history, and processes; the blurring of public and private, state and market; and the non-economic aspects of social disadvantage.
"I hope this research demonstrates how developments early in the legal process—especially during the pretrial stage—have major long-term ramifications for defendants, courts, and jails," he says, "And what happens when private sector actors hold responsibility for a public good."