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The U.S. bail bonds system raises serious consumer protection concerns

> Posted by Allyse McGrath, Specialist, CFI

In a criminal justice system that accepts cash in exchange for temporary freedom, a predatory financial service has taken root and become yet another barrier. In the United States, bail bondsman and global insurance companies are netting between $1.4 billion and $2.4 billion annually from vulnerable people who are unable to pay the bail they need to remain out of custody before they are tried. This is not a new problem. It’s been going on since the early days of the modern U.S. criminal justice system.

Those accused of crimes are given an option to stay in jail or put up an amount of money (bail) for their release prior to trial. (It is important to note that people at this stage are presumed innocent under law.) The bail acts as a commitment device for people to show up to their court hearing. The bail amount is returned if the defendant shows up. If they do not, the court keeps it. Bail amounts vary greatly based on the severity of the crime in question as well as the potential flight risk of the accused party. The average bail amount for a felony arrest is about $10,000, roughly two months’ worth of the median annual income in the United States. In a study of nearly 30,000 cases where bail was set in New York City, only 37 percent of defendants could afford to pay bail.

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