Do Millionaires Worry About Going to Jail?

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There are vast differences between the lives of a rich person and a poor person. As someone who finds himself in the former category, I know that the majority of these differences privilege my experiences and opportunities over the other. In a truly democratic and safe society, these benefits should stop once the criminal justice system enters into the equation, but this is not the case. Once a poor and a rich person are arrested, their finances make a world of a difference. Let me tell you how:

Let’s say someone is arrested. Actually, let’s be specific, because as a 58 year old white guy that lives on Park Avenue, it would require a huge suspension of disbelief to envision me behind bars. Most people in my social group have never been arrested and the only person I personally know who has ever been arrested is Congressman Espaillat, who was arrested at a civil disobedience protest.

But, let’s say for some crazy reason I was arrested, and the court set bail at $100,000. I would just direct my lawyer to post $100,000 worth of securities from my portfolio. This would cost me nothing. But let’s say a person who was arrested does not have a securities portfolio. That is where the financial services industry comes in. There are companies (called bail bond companies) who have portfolios that they will lend you. You only need to pay a fee of 10% or so. But remember, this guy is already poor and now has to raise $10,000 from his friends and family. Not a temporary loan of $10,000, but 10 grand as a payment. He must pool cash from his family while I must sacrifice nothing.

You might think, ah, but the bail bonds company is taking all kinds of risks. They might lose the whole $100,000, in which case they’ll have to employ a bunch of guys with cars like in the Fast and Furious movies. But no, they won’t. They employ a bunch of guys who have computers with spreadsheets and print out forms for people to sign. Those guys then find out if their clients have jobs, and can then charge them more fees for keeping them out of jail so they can do their jobs. They almost never lose any money. In fact, the bail bonds industry is worth over $2 billion. If you miss a mortgage payment, the mortgage company might file a lien on your house. If you miss a payment to these guys, they can come arrest you. With that kind of incentive, they get their money one way or another.

You might be wondering, with bail bondsmen holding so much power, what sort of oversight makes sure consumers’ rights are protected. The answer is disheartening. Certain municipalities do have rules protecting consumers from bondsman’s extortion, but the rules are in their infancy, and are hard to enforce.

Cash bail does not keep us any safer. Those with money, like myself, do not get imprisoned while awaiting trial, and poor people (who may or may not ever be convicted of any crime) are finding their lives ruined either way by the cost of either getting a bail bond or staying in jail. The bail bond industry does not do anything to make us safer — unless you are an investor in the bail bonds industry. We should revisit both systems– cash bail and the bail bond industry– to ensure that our criminal justice system is truly deterring future criminal activity and not just allowing the private sector to profit off those charged but not convicted of a crime.

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