Not surprisingly, Temple professor John Goldkamp, an architect of the city's failed system, opposes commercial bail. His view is endorsed by a phalanx of bureaucrats whose only proposed solution is to tune up a system with a proven genius for failure and prop it up with an expanded, expensive, and publicly funded cohort of public servants - in other words, not only more of the same, but more and more of the same.
Commercial bail cannot fix Philadelphia's broken criminal-justice system. But it can help.
Commercial bail is an insurance policy for the city. If the defendant does not appear and a forfeiture judgment is executed, a commercial bail agency must pay the amount of the bond or lose its license. (Licensing fees are another source of revenue for the city.) So there is a powerful financial incentive to recover the absconder, and, if that fails, to pay the forfeiture and stay in business.
Under Philadelphia's system, by contrast, bail bonds are junk bonds; there is nothing backing them up. If a defendant absconds, the city is out 90 percent of the bond in cases where defendants were required to post 10 percent, or 100 percent in other cases.
But can Philadelphia tolerate commercial bail's success rate? If it's so efficient at recovering fugitives, won't it further clog the city's already crowded jails?
Not necessarily. The number of bail-jumpers returned to custody would likely be offset by a higher number of defendants who are not confined while awaiting trial.
Furthermore, the cost of recovering fugitives would be borne solely by bonding agents, saving the city money on law enforcement and extradition.
A few other myths standing in the way of commercial bail can be easily dispelled, including:
Money bail does not work. That's true in the case of the 10 percent deposit option now favored by Philadelphia. Criminals love this approach: They get out of jail for one-tenth of the cost of the bond, and there is almost nobody to pursue them when they skip. Many criminals, especially those in the drug trade, see the 10 percent option as the cost of doing business. But with commercial bail bonds, statistics show secured release works very well.
Bail agents are accountable to no one. Bail agents sell an insurance product. At a minimum, agents have to meet the state's licensing and continuing-education requirements. They have to comply with business and professional codes. They have to honor their contracts with the courts and their insurance companies, which themselves must be admitted to practice in each state. And they are subject to taxes on insurance premiums and exposed to legal liabilities just as any other business is.
Law enforcement arrests most bail-jumpers. They don't in Philadelphia. Bail agents return 97 to 98 percent of their skips. And there is evidence that fugitives thrive and find havens in jurisdictions that have no commercial bail, such as Philadelphia, Washington, and Multnomah County, Ore.
Bondsmen profit from others' misfortunes. In this respect, commercial bonding is not very different from physicians, judges, corrections officers, attorneys, mechanics, plumbers, launderers, Merry Maids, and the Geek Squad. Almost every profession or business is reparative; it fixes something.
Bondsmen are lowlifes. The commercial bonding profession suffers from an image problem due to unflattering depictions in television, movies, and other media. This image may have comported with reality several decades ago. Today, however, commercial bonding is complex, demanding, and highly professionalized. It employs staffs of attorneys, accountants, insurance specialists, investigators, and IT personnel to track the status of millions of transactions.
But even if bondsmen were lowlifes, it would be irrelevant. Your garbage man might not have a degree in comparative literature. But does he clean up your trash?
Dennis A. Bartlett is executive director of the American Bail Coalition. He can be reached at email@example.com.