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.
“That means the family has a stake in ensuring the released person shows up,” says Gibbs, whose All Pro Bail Bonds, the third-largest bail firm in California, is headquartered in Solana Beach.
There have been a few attempts at bail reform throughout the years, perhaps most significantly in 1966 and 1984. The earlier year was aimed at liberalizing pretrial release standards in favor of the incarcerated, and the latter meant to toughen standards in order to “protect communities” during the crime waves of the 1970s and ’80s.
Nevertheless, bail has remained a system by which if you can post enough money as collateral against your promise to appear in court, you can usually get out of jail. And, according to some experts, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of pre-trial release both to society and to the individual. The bail issue touches on judicial principles ranging from the preservation of constitutional liberties to the legal doctrine of presumed innocence. In fact, bail is expressly guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution as part of the Eighth Amendment.
A recent Harvard Law School Criminal Justice Policy Program study shows that arrestees who don’t get out on bail or some other type of pretrial release such as self-recognizance are four times more likely to remain behind bars after trial. And a October 2016 study, titled “Moving Beyond Money Bail: A Primer on Bail Reform,” continues, “...pretrial detention also impacts many aspects of an individual’s life, including the outcome of his criminal case. Even a short period of pretrial detention can have cascading effects on an individual. Pretrial detention can threaten a person’s employment, housing stability, child custody, and access to health care....”
The Harvard study finds that those denied pretrial release are “over four times more likely to be sentenced to jail and over three times more likely to be sentenced to prison than defendants who were released at some point pending trial.”
The sentences of those who are detained pretrial are, the study found, “almost three times as long for defendants sentenced to jail, and more than twice as long for those sentenced to prison....”
A handful of states, including New Jersey, have moved away from bail paradigms previously driven by cash and bail bonds, opting instead for flight-risk algorithms, GPS ankle bracelets and, as critics of America’s new pretrial-release reform movement like to put it, letting potentially dangerous people out of jail on a mere promise to appear, while flat-out denying bail to others who deserve release.
California Senate Bill 10, which is slowly moving forward through the legislative process, may bring a New Jersey–style system to the Golden State, all but eliminating the bail industry. The bill is co-authored by state senator Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland). According to Steffan Gibbs, if the bill passes, California taxpayers, the courts, and law-enforcement officials will be shocked to find out just how much labor and financial burden his industry has been providing all along.
“Based on estimates from New Jersey, although they haven’t had a full year of it yet, if you extrapolate that out, the California taxpayer loses over a billion dollars to do what is currently done for them by our industry, and in fact creates revenue,” Gibbs says.
He points to a New Jersey study that estimated the initial cost of transitioning to a system like the one SB10 would bring to California at $215 million. Multiplying that number by four-and-a-half, which is about how much larger the Golden State’s population is than the Garden State’s, is how Gibbs arrives at the $1 billion estimate.
A billion dollars: that’s how much he and others in the bail industry — as well as a group of retired judges — believe this state’s bail-reform bill could cost taxpayers.
“You know, my office isn’t free, the lights aren’t free, phones aren’t free, the staff clearly isn’t free, so they’re going to have to hire people to do this tracking and monitoring and keeping track of people making sure they show up for court that we do now to the best of their ability with text messages and phone calls and, ‘Hey, why aren’t you going today?’” Gibbs says. “Why would you want to put that on the taxpayer when we’re already doing it for free?”
Gibbs isn’t just worried about taxpayers, though he says that’s a real concern.
“If this bill passes through, it will probably devastate the industry,” he says, adding that about 3000 jobs will directly be lost in the process. Adding affiliated industries, such as bounty hunters and connected services, that number could increase to about 4000.
But there’s another cost to SB10, according to Gibbs.
“You’re losing the influence of the community and the leverage of families,” he continues. “Go to one of our offices and you will see mothers and fathers and mothers-in-law sitting in our offices sitting on the waiting couch. They’re coming to bail the husband or this or that woman out. They’re coming together to get him out. The family is the bond to get you to court.”
Gibbs and many others in the industry are convinced that several unintended, negative consequences will come as a result of Senate Bill 10. Among them, he says, are potential results that run contrary to the stated primary goal of the bill’s proponents: creating a more just and equitable pretrial release system.
“I don’t sit in judgment of my clients,” explains Gibbs. “These people are being abused by people all throughout their lives, whether it be their boss, who thinks they’re a loser; the judge thinks they’re guilty; the D.A. wants to come after them. Their public defenders thinks they’re low-lifes. Why not have them come to the one place — especially if we’re going to call them ‘customer’ and they’re going to pay us money — why not be the one place where they’re going to get treated with respect and get to talk to somebody who’s professionally attired and not making light of their situation...?”
Gibbs says he’s part of the industry’s self-reform movement that preceded current activist-driven reform movement. “That was part of our mission at Aladdin,” he says of his former employer, Aladdin Bail Bonds, which went from being a “back-end” wholesaler of bail bonds (meaning a company that re-sold to insurance companies bonds that had already been sold at the retail level to defendants and arrestees’ families), to one that began selling at the storefront level during his tenure as chief executive.
“We took a mom-and-pop company and applied a Harvard Business School approach to it and made them clean, well-lit, safe, and welcoming,” Gibbs says. “You walk past the two offices next to [All Pro’s downtown San Diego offices] and you will see they’re dark, scary rooms where you can’t really see in from the outside.... We took the handcuffs off the table and changed the way in which the business is done.”
Gibbs says there’s more work to do in the bail-bond industry to make it better and to make bail more accessible to poorer arrestees who haven’t been able to afford bail in the past. He’s surprisingly candid when asked if there could have been a fund set up by the industry for indigent defendants.
“We could and maybe we should have already done something like that,” he says. “But a lot of people don’t realize that we already offer payment plans, sometimes as low as $50 a month.”
While he admits the industry needs an image makeover, he’s asking the public to change the way it looks at his industry. “It’s not Dog the Bounty Hunter,” he says. It’s closer to Susie the social worker.
A day downtown visiting storefronts along what could easily be called “Bail Bond Boulevard,” where the MTS Trolley’s Orange and Blue Lines operate on C Street between Front Street and Fourth Avenue, revealed some truth to Gibbs’s characterization of the bail agent as a caring do-gooder. But make no mistake, bail is a business, the bondsmen and women are sales reps who make commissions and bonuses. Some companies even have sales quotas. That said, the folks we interviewed had a surprising number of their current and former clients on speed dial. Some even know their clients’ 12-step recovery meetings schedules; and in at least one case, were engaged in making sure the out-on-bail arrestee was going to AA meetings by driving her there.
“I looked like a cockroach...
...when I came in,” explains Donatella, who declines to give her first name. “I was — no I can’t even tell you...it was bad.”
It’s hard to imagine the eloquent and downright chirpy Donatella as a cockroach as she describes her first visit to the bail office on C Street. Her former bail bondsman introduces us. But because the existential threat of Senate Bill 10 has bail bondsmen so on edge and afraid to say anything that “could get twisted in the media,” as he put it, he asks us not to name his company. Besides, his boss hasn’t approved media interviews.
“I owe everything to him,” says Donatella, who explains she has a year clean and sober off of crystal methamphetamine and alcohol — and had been at her second Alcoholics Anonymous meeting of the day before our brief interview. The bail agent blushes with her kind words.
“But our story is different,” Donatella explains with a girlish tone of flirtation and a knowing laugh. “It was a love story.”
It turns out the “love story” reference is inside humor. So delusional from her drug and alcohol addictions was Donatella when she came to the bondsman’s office the second time regarding her own bail (her first visit had been on behalf of an ex-boyfriend) that her bondsman was her lover.
“He would take me in his car to AA meetings,” she said. “At first, I didn’t really want to go, but I wanted to please him.”
That’s the kind of story that doesn’t surprise Gibbs. “That’s what I’m talking about when I say you’re about to lose something that is and has been a vital part of the criminal justice system — a human touch. That’s not replaceable.”