When Cali Jones (an alias she suggested) found herself in jail for a second time for methamphetamine possession, “The cops took my son away from me,” a sobbing Jones tells the bail bondsman by phone from her cell inside the San Diego County Jail. Among charges she’s facing is one for smoking meth in front of her four-year-old son, Josh.
The first time the 28-year-old was arrested, Josh was barely two. But that time he wasn’t with her as she was taken into custody. Speaking via collect call paid for by the bail bondsman’s employer — the kind of call that can end up costing bail-bond companies anywhere from $25 to $70 each, Jones says getting off of drugs is all she wants now — that and getting Josh back.
“Please get me out of here,” she says.
The bail bondsman does get her out. Jones’s bail was set at $25,000. A week later, she, her mom, and her grandmother come into the bail-bonds office along with Josh. It’s clear, “Grandnana” is the toddler’s full-time caregiver.
Now sitting in front of the bail agent who chose to sign a bond that restored her freedom the week before, Jones is preoccupied with a tall, skinny, and somewhat hyperactive young man outside. He may be her boyfriend, but we never find out for sure because he never comes inside the bail office. Rather, speaking emphatically to someone on his phone during the entire visit, he paces outside the storefront glass abutting the downtown trolley line near the county jail.
“Child Protective Services won’t let her alone with her boy no more,” Cali’s mom says to the bail bondsman as he types information into his computer.
“They want her in a program for six months before she can have supervised visits; I don’t even know if we’re even supposed to be having him with her here right now.”
The bail bondsman corrects her.
“I can’t give you legal advice, but I don’t see a protective order,” he says, turning back from his keyboard to face the three women. “She’s released on bail; Josh is in your custody. You’re here to talk about terms of Cali’s release and that’s what we need to talk about. Cali...” His voice trails off and he raises his hands off the desk in a gesture of mild exasperation when he realizes that his client is totally distracted. He has quite literally risked $25,000 of his employer’s money on Jones. The pretrial visit to her bond-holder’s office is intended to strategize mitigation of that risk. It’s also time to address a payment plan and assurances from both the family and from Jones herself that she will make it to her next court date. If she fails to appear, the company will be out $25,000.
But Jones’s slim, graceful neck is twisted 160 degrees backward in order to allow her eyes a look at the young man outside.
“What’s he doing?” Jones mutters, fingertips in her mouth. “Is he getting on the train?”
Barely noticed by his bailed-out mother, Jones’s elfin son sits perched three laps away on his great-grandmother’s knee. He bangs a stapler on the bail bondsman’s tidy desk. Between the two women sits Jones’s mother. Tired of her daughter’s distractedness, she finally snaps. “Dammit, Cali, will you pay attention and forget about him for a while? He ain’t gettin’ on the train. You need to pay attention here to this man in front of you. You’ve got to think about court, and rehab, and your son — and all this money your grandmother and me are puttin’ up for you.”
Together, Jones’s mother and her grandmother have ponied up nearly $2000 — all from savings, but now the bail company wants to know how another $500 — to complete the 10 percent of the full $25,000 bail amount — will be paid.
“Ideally the family will bring their cash contribution up closer to the amount that was agreed to when she was still in custody, before we got her out,” the bail agent told the Reader. “We also have financing, but unfortunately there’s some resistance to making up the difference that way in this case.”
The bondsman, who allowed us to witness a half-day’s interaction under condition of anonymity, says we’ve just witnessed two ways that California’s money-based bail system is effective.
“You can see how these ladies are not only paying to get their loved one out of custody so she can take care of her business and rebuild her life as a mom who needs to take care of her child,” he explains, “but you can also see how they’re promising to be responsible for the rest of the bail amount if she fails to appear in court for her trial date. They’re literally invested in her being held accountable.”
Bail system under threat
For folks such as Cali Jones, bail is simply access to freedom.
But to All Pro Bail Bonds chief executive Steffan Gibbs, the longstanding bail system is a profit-making business that allows him to employ 168 employees who make on average $15 hour and receive 80 percent–paid health care and other benefits. But, he says, the estimated $3 billion bail industry also provides a manifold public service.
“We monitor and supervise defendants during the pretrial process, with check-ins every week,” says Gibbs. “That’s work the state and the county don’t have to do.”
Essentially a holdover from the early 20th Century in its present incarnation, the current money-bail system has even deeper roots. The basic concept of “bonding” an accused, jailed person out of state or crown custody goes back to 1400s Europe. Then, and largely through to the beginning of 1900s America, families or friends — not commercial bail-bond agents — put up money or valuable assets to secure their loved ones’ freedom. In the 20th Century, bail agents began financing the system.
The system has worked for arrestees graced with friends and family who possess enough assets to post bond. If their beloved bad girl or bad boy doesn’t show up for trial, the court keeps the forfeited assets that were put up as bond.