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When freedom feels like extortion: bail industry accused of exploiting poor clients

An electronic billboard advertising Blair's Bail Bonds on Tulane Avenue in New Orleans.
An electronic billboard advertising Blair's Bail Bonds on Tulane Avenue in New Orleans. (William Widmer/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — Most bail bond agents make it their business to get their clients to court. But when Ronald Egana showed up at the criminal courthouse in New Orleans, he was surprised to find that his bondsman wanted to stop him.

A bounty hunter was waiting at the courthouse metal detector to intercept Egana and haul him to the bond company office, he said.

The reason: The bondsman wanted to get paid. Egana ended up in handcuffs, missing his court appearance while the agency got his mother on the phone and demanded more than $1,500 in overdue payments, according to a lawsuit.

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As commercial bail has grown into a $2 billion industry, bond agents have become the payday lenders of the criminal justice world, offering quick relief to desperate customers at high prices. When clients like Egana cannot afford to pay the bond company’s fee to get them out, bond agents simply loan them the money, allowing them to go on a payment plan.

But bondsmen have extraordinary powers that most lenders do not.

They are supposed to return their clients to jail if they skip court or do something illegal. But some states give them broad latitude to arrest their clients for any reason — or none at all. A credit card company cannot jail someone for missing a payment. A bondsman, in many instances, can.

Using that leverage, bond agents can charge steep fees, some of which are illegal, with impunity, according to interviews and a review of court records and complaint data.

They can also go far beyond the demands of other creditors by requiring their clients to check in regularly, keep a curfew, allow searches of cars or homes at any time, and open their medical, Social Security, and phone records to inspection. They keep a close eye on clients, but in many places, no one is keeping a close eye on them.

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“It’s a consumer protection issue,” said Judge Lee V. Coffee, a criminal court judge in Memphis. Before recent changes to the rules there, he said, defendants frequently complained of shakedowns in which bondsmen demanded extra payments. “They’re living under a constant daily threat that ‘if you don’t bring more money, we’re going to put you in jail.’ ”

The pressure, the judge said, “would actually encourage people to go out and commit more crimes.”

Some customers feel they have no choice but to pay bond agents’ fees — no matter how outrageous they seem. When a home health care aide wanted to bail her son in New York City, she was charged $1,000 to have a courier walk her money a few blocks to the courthouse.

In Egana’s case, the bond agency, Blair’s Bail Bonds, would not have been on the hook for the defendant’s failure to appear, because the bondsman diverted Egana from a court date for a case unrelated to the one for which he had been bailed out.

The use of bail bonds has come under attack in recent years because it keeps the poorest, rather than the most dangerous, defendants behind bars.

The bond industry has worked to undermine reforms and regulations, arguing that commercial bail is still the most efficient and taxpayer-friendly way to keep the public safe and the courts running smoothly.