The Death of the Bondsmen?

The Death of the Bondsmen?

For more than three decades, Clay Potter has started his workday at 3 a.m. He works for at least 13 hours every day, from five in the morning to seven in the evening — “the daily grind”, he calls it, and the work doesn’t stop then. He often also gets calls from clients late at night.

Potter is a bail bondsman. As recently as October he thought he might be forced by changes in state law to shut down his 54-year-old bail bond company in a matter of months. But legal wrangling has brought a two-year reprieve, during which he hopes there will be a long-term solution that will enable him to keep the business up and running.

“We wrote our first bond in 1965,” said Potter, who was seven when he started helping out his father at his office. “My father started it...I’ve been waiting for years to take over the family business and expecting to be able to hand it on to my children, but as it stands now, I won’t be able to do that.”

In 2017, California Sen. Bob Hertzberg introduced SB 10, which aimed to completely abolish the state’s money bail system. In August of 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill, making California the first state in the U.S. to end money bail. Brown said that the state was reforming its legal system so that “rich and poor alike are treated fairly.”

The bill, which was scheduled to take effect on October 1, 2019, would have put the 3,200 bail agents and companies licensed by the state’s Department of Insurance out of work.

However bail agents across the state mobilized and undertook a massive signature gathering campaign, amassing nearly 600,000 signatures, almost double the number required to qualify for a ballot referendum. Now implementation of the bill is on hold until the 2020 election, when voters will decide whether to abolish the industry.

“When I was eighteen years old, I became a bail agent. I was supposedly the youngest bail agent in the United States at that time,” said Potter, sitting behind a desk stacked with files and official documents. After graduating from UCLA, he worked in the creative department of Paramount Pictures designing movie posters, he said. He returned to the business and took over when his father decided to retire.

“You can see how that’s working out, with Hertzberg, you know, trying to stop the bail bond business in California,” he said.

Bail Bond Row

The palm-lined parking lot at the intersection of Vignes and Bauchet streets is home to at least 10 bail agencies. Walk further down either side and one will find more. Located directly opposite the Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Vignes Place, or “bail bond row” as it is sometimes called, is a prime location.

Bail agents see their work as part of the service industry. Each office on Vignes Place advertises the services it provides. The windows of Potter Bail Bonds have stickers saying “Free Information”, “All Jails All Courts”, and “Lowest Prices”. The website lists more.

Many of the bail agencies are family-run businesses, with non-descript offices resembling insurance companies. Potter Bail Bonds has three desks with desktop computers for the agents and filing cabinets lining one wall. Toward the rear is Potter’s office. There is also a sofa and chairs for waiting clients. Nowadays though a lot of the business at Potter Bail Bonds is conducted over the phones, which ring frequently.

“Potter Bail Bonds. How can I help you?” is the standard response. It is also how Potter answers his mobile phone if the caller is unknown. His voice is always calm and respectful — any caller may be a potential client.

Potter said most of his clients are “nice” and “even gang members are never violent” because they understand that they need to get the bondsman to sign off on the bail. He said he’s fascinated by how little parents sometimes their own children. In describing the parental denial that he encounters, he adopts the sort of gallows humor not uncommon in professions where humans in crisis is the norm.

“They think they’re sweet kids, but they’re like, gang members, you know, killers, shooters, and all kinds of things,” he said, laughing.

Bail agents see themselves as providing a service vital to the functioning of the legal system.

“Bail has been part of our history and it has helped all people. It has helped the very people that they’re saying it has not. We are just here to provide a service...and preserve the constitutional right [according to] the United States Constitution and the California Constitution,” said Gloria Mitchell of the California Bail Agents Association.

Roger Sayegh, the owner of the Bail Boys, located next door to Potter’s shop, concurred. “A lot of times when we bail out an individual, it could be because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Sayegh said. “We bail them out so that they could fight their case from the outside.”

Sayegh studied criminal justice and Arabic at the California State University, San Bernardino with the hope of working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency.

“A colleague of mine opened up a bail bonds business, and I was his first agent,” Sayegh said. “I kind of ran with it. I learned everything from him...It kind of fell into my lap and I’ve been doing it for like seven-eight years.”

Sayegh said he is confident that his educational qualifications will enable him to find a job in another sector if the bail industry is abolished. However, he is not sure how the long-time veterans of the profession are going to cope.

“There’s individuals who’ve been in the industry for about 40-plus years and they don’t know anything else,” he said. “So it’s going to definitely harm them in regards to finding something different than what they’ve been used to for ‘x’ amount of years.”

Places like Oregon, Kentucky, New Jersey and Washington D.C. are also working toward abolishing the bail system. Many think that California’s passage of the bill is the beginning of the end of the industry, endangering the livelihoods of the roughly 25,000 bail agents nationwide.

A Misrepresented Industry?

In 1898, Peter and Thomas McDonough established the first commercial bail bond firm in San Francisco. Nicknamed “The Old Lady of Kearny Street”, the business lasted 50 years and left a legacy “prototypical of the growing commercial surety industry.” Over time, as the commercial bail industry grew, so did criticism of it.

By 2016, when state politicians first started talking about abolishing the industry, it had long since moved beyond local “mom-and-pop” establishments. According to a joint-study conducted by the ACLU and Color of Change, a racial justice advocacy group, 10 multinational insurance companies underwrote almost all of the $14 billion in bail bonds issued nationwide each year.

“About 450,000 people are held pretrial on various amounts of bail that they cannot afford to pay, therefore they do not obtain the constitutional right to release before trial,” said Shima B. Baughman, a law professor at the University of Utah and the author of The Bail Book: A Comprehensive Look at Bail in America’s Criminal Justice System.

Despite federal reform measures passed in the latter half of the 20th century, excessively high bail amounts are still a problem. According to Jessica Farris of the American Civil Liberties Union, 60 percent of people incarcerated in California are in jail awaiting trial. The total numbers around 40,000 people and costs around $5 million a day, she said.

Clay Potter said that the bail industry as a whole is misrepresented and disparaged because most people do not really understand how it works. For instance, he agrees that the bail amounts, especially in California, are too high but says that the fault does not lie with the bondsmen.

“The presiding judges are the ones that set the bails...I am not the guy setting the $50,000 or the million-dollar bail amount,” he said.

Bail amounts are decided according to county bail schedules — a list compiled by judges that sets an amount according to the nature of offense. In the current legal system, if a defendant is unable to afford the bail amount, the person can pay a premium — usually 10 percent — to a bail company to front the money. If the person then fails to turn up for trial, the court grants a bail agency six months to find and bring the defendant to court. If they fail to do so, then the bail agency has to pay the full amount.

“A lot of bondsmen are not charging 10 percent anymore. It’s a state rate but a lot of bondsmen are charging less,” said Potter. Most people also don’t have enough to even pay the fraction for the bondsmen and most agencies allow them to pay in installments, he said.

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Gloria Mitchell said that reform has to start with the judges and that the state’s representatives in Sacramento have to understand that.

“They don’t want to hear that but it really starts with the judges who once a year meet and make those bail schedules. We have always felt that that would be the best start and reform is needed. We want to support that and help come with a better solution,” she said.

For very high bail amounts, agencies may also keep a house, car or some other possession as collateral. It is however, always a gamble. “In some cases, it’s just a loss because you can’t get money from somebody who doesn’t have it,” said Potter.

Most bail agencies are still small family businesses and do not write bonds worth billions annually, Potter said. According to him, those that do are all corporate bail bond chains.

“We’re not trying to write a billion dollars in business every year like some [agency] that is owned by some, you know, holding company or whatever...They’re just in it to make money,” he said.

Potter said that the rise of these corporate chains also contributes to the bad reputation of the industry.

“It’s a lot of the newer companies that come up, they think they’re going to like get rich or something and the bail bond business is really not a get-rich-quick type of business...It’s a long-term thing because you’re responsible long as somebody’s fighting their case on bail,” he said.

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Potter said he is extremely careful when bailing out a person. The defendant’s past arrest record, financial situation, and even whether or not the person has a family are just some of the factors he considers before signing off on a bail, he said. Some agencies, he said, are less cautious.

“If it’s a family business, you’re worried more about the risk know, you really want to make sure it’s a good bond. But it’s some of the companies...they try to write everything and they...mislead you, or bother the shit out of you...Then the client would feel threatened like they’re going to be put back in jail,” he said.

Complaints about the industry are not just about the high bail amounts. A study conducted by the UCLA School of Law in support of the senate bill found that bail contracts often gave the sureties control over defendants’ homes or cars offered as collateral and also gave leeway to agents to return their clients to jail or charge additional fees. Complaints also abounded of aggressive recovery agents or “bounty hunters” who often had limited knowledge of the law and methods of arrest.

“You end up with, you know, some pretty gung-ho kind of people on occasion and then there are a lot of sensible bounty hunters who know their job and don’t get too crazy,” said Potter. Most recovery agents used to be ex-military or ex-police and were more reliable, but nowadays there are ones who became bounty hunters because they “just want to have an exciting life,” he said.

The ACLU had helped draft the bill to abolish commercial bail and implement a system of “risk assessment” that would assess how much of a risk a defendant posed to society if released and what the chances were of them appearing in court for their trial and then give the presiding judge a recommendation. The judge would then decide whether to release the defendant or detain them till trial.

According to Jessica Farris, a member of the organization, the ACLU wanted to exclude the arrest records of a person because arrests don’t necessarily lead to conviction. The initial bill however was amended to include arrest data. Before it went to the senate floor for a vote, the organization withdrew its support.

“The bill was basically gutted and amended and what passed is now a presumption of detention...It’s very nerve-wracking that it takes a flawed system...and replaces it with one that is potentially and almost definitely in certain counties going to be much worse,” said Farris.

The law is going to reflect already existing biases in the judicial system and will end up imprisoning more people, and even innocent people are going to lose their jobs or homes just because they were stuck in jail, she said.

Who Bails the Bail Agents?

“They wrote SB 10 because they feel that the bail system is unfair to poor people and I completely agree, I understand. But the way it is right now, there’s no discerning who’s getting released and who doesn’t. So for example, somebody that gets arrested, say it’s even mistaken identity — that happens a lot...they have to spend three days in jail before going to court,” said Daniel Valdez, who has been a bail agent for around four years.

Currently, he works at Answers Bail Bonds, a few hundred yards from the offices of Clay Potter. Some months ago, he became one among several thousand signatories to a petition that aims to stop the bill.

“We’re collecting signatures to put it on the 2020 let the people decide if they want to keep it [the bail system] or not,” he said.

The campaign, led by the California Bail Agents Association and the American Bail Coalition has to put a referendum in the polls in 2020. Jeff Clayton, the president of the American Bail Coalition said that they managed to get 577,000 signatures, meaning that the law will not come into effect before 2020.

Despite reservations against the law, civil liberties organizations like the ACLU are not supporting the petition. The ACLU welcomes the end of commercial bail and will work to make the new system fairer and more just, Farris said.

Both Clayton, and Gloria Mitchell are confident that voters will cast their ballots in favor of keeping the present system in place. Potter however is more skeptical.

The industry is misrepresented and it is vital that the people understand it and also realize what will happen if the bail system is abolished, he said.

“I think if they really understand what it means if they don’t [vote to keep the bail industry] then they’ll definitely vote,” said Potter. Abolishing the bail system will mean that more people will be imprisoned and the government will also have to pursue those who skip trial, costing taxpayers millions of dollars, he said.

Clayton said that the bail industry will be working to change public perception of them and added that according to early data that the coalition had collected, the public is hugely supportive so far.

“A lot of people will vote against everything. There’s a built-in five-ish to ten-ish point advantage by, you know, being on the “no’ side,” he laughed.

The effects of the passage of the bill are however already being felt. Potter, for instance, said he decided to downsize his staff, based in part on the chance that the industry is nearing the end.

“We’re all pretty capable, bail agents. So we can all, you know, find other jobs,” said Valdez. Yet he does not know what he will do if the law takes effect.

“I just think that it’s going to affect me but you know, I’ve been working hard all my life. So I’ll manage and I’ll be okay,” Potter said. Potter thinks that his interest in design will enable him to switch to the art industry if the bail system is abolished. He is also planning to open a clothing company.

The bail industry has been Potter’s life and if it shuts down, it would be difficult for him to adjust to a new one, he said. Like him, the 3,000 bail agents in California are pinning their hopes on the referendum. They hope that the people will vote in 2020 to keep the bail system in place.

“It is absolutely important. That’s really the only chance we have to stay in business,” said Potter.