Forget what you've seen of bail bondsmen in movies and on TV: In reality, the bail bonds industry is far more buttoned-down and boring than you might imagine. Individual agents are subjected to physical danger if they're forced to pursue a client who's gone missing, but most of the risk associated with the business is financial in nature. After all, bail bond agencies regularly put up large sums of money, and they're often left holding the bag if something goes wrong.
Bail Bond Basics
For many crimes, bail is often prohibitively expensive. Since most defendants and their families simply don't have the cash to post bond, they must turn to a bail bond agency for help. In exchange for a fixed fee of 10 to 15 percent, depending on prevailing rates in the area, the agency posts the bond in full and earns their client's freedom temporarily. If the client is single, jobless or otherwise deemed a potential flight risk, they'll also require a further guarantee in the form of physical collateral or a property lien to guarantee the loan if he or she suddenly disappears.
Keeping Everyone Happy
The concept of bail bonds is simple, but the devil is in the details. The price of bail makes it impractical for most bail bond agencies to put up their own money for every client that walks into their office, forcing them to take out lines of credit at least one bank in their trade area. This is a great deal for the bank: They charge the bondsman interest on their credit line and assume no risk for defendants who jump bail. Since they have multiple clients, most agencies also have a blanket bond with the criminal court in their jurisdiction, which fluctuates in size as bail is posted and returned for each of their clients.
Putting On the Squeeze
Bail bondsmen thus find themselves squeezed between three parties: Potentially dishonest defendants, creditors insulated from the immediate risk of posting bail, and the court workers responsible for collecting and returning bail payments. If one of their clients jumps bail, bail agents may find themselves in the potentially dangerous position of having to track them down regardless of whether they've put up collateral in exchange for the bond.
While collateral arrangements insulate bail bond agencies from the financial risk of individual bonds, they force bondsmen to dispose of seized property in a timely fashion, creating fresh headaches when they're needed least. Generally speaking, judges and other court personnel have a low opinion of bail bondsmen whose clients consistently jump bail and will occasionally take the drastic step of denying a particularly troublesome bond agency the right to post further bonds in its jurisdiction.
Most bail bond agencies are independent outfits that compete fiercely with one another for business, so review the options in your area before settling on a particular agency. Also, if you're posting bail for a loved one, remind them that skipping out on their court appearance will make their bail bondsman very unhappy.
Toby Winters is a guest blogger for www.bailbondsman.org where you'll find many of the answers to questions you have about bail bonds.