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Should It Cost Less to Get Out of Jail if You’re Rich?

Eric Amparan likes the system the way it is now. As a bail bondsman, he’s part of an industry that pulls in $2 billion in revenue every year. Eric lays out how he profits off of financial desperation in our latest video in the Prison Profiteers series:
The Sweet Life
Here’s how it typically works: If you’re booked into jail, you can either sit in a cell for months waiting for your trial — losing your job and missing your childcare commitments in the process — or you can pay bail to the court. Bail functions like a promise; the court will return it to you when you show up for your court date.

The average bail amount is nearly $90,000. If you don’t happen to have this amount sitting in your bank account, odds are you’ll need to borrow it from a bail bondsman, like Eric Amparan. Here’s the catch: Eric will keep 10 percent of this amount as his non-refundable fee, even if you’re found innocent. So you pay almost $9,000 to get out of jail if you’re poor or middle class, but you pay nothing if you’re rich.

Bail is not a fine. It is not supposed to be used as punishment. The traditional purpose of bail is simply to ensure that people will return for their court date. But the commercial bail industry’s business model is to make it more expensive for people of lesser means to move through the criminal justice system.

Most states have laws saying that the default should be that people are released from jail while waiting for their trial solely based on their promise to return to court — unless there’s a really compelling reason to hold them. And these laws could work — studies show that most people can be safely released based on their promise to return without jeopardizing public safety or fleeing.

But judges often ignore these laws, and instead make people pay bail — which feeds right into the bail profiteers’ business model. The higher the bail set by judges, the higher the profit for bail bond companies. The American Bail Coalition — a lobbying group that represents the bail bondsmen, powerful insurance companies and wealthy investors — is working hard to make sure these profits keep coming in. They spent $3.1 million dollars lobbying state lawmakers between 2002 and 2011 and drafted twelve bail bills that encourage judges to set high bail amounts and give the bail industry more leeway to profit off incarceration.

Four states — Illinois, Kentucky Oregon and Wisconsin — have abolished the bail bonding industry. Other states should do the same.

We shouldn’t have two criminal justice systems — one for the rich and one for the rest of us. The commercial bail industry needs to know we’re watching.

The bail industry is just one the many powerful entities getting rich off mass incarceration. Meet the other Prison Profiteers and take action to fight their abuses at

Photo from keith licensed under Creative Commons

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Jesse Lava

Jesse Lava

Jesse Lava is a campaign director at Brave New Foundation, where he produces and distributes videos on social justice issues. Previously a communications strategist for progressive causes, his work has covered an array of policy areas including climate change, campaign finance, drug treatment, and human services funding. Jesse was also the founding director of Faithful Democrats and has penned numerous pieces for faith-based publications. He has a master's in public policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a bachelor's from Wesleyan University.