How journalists can investigate the bail bond industry: Story ideas and tips

by Wanda Bertram, October 14, 2022

Table of Contents
Are bail companies actually bringing their clients to court?
How much bail owed by companies is not being collected by courts?
How is the bail industry lobbying for favorable conditions in your area?
General tips for investigating the bail industry

Our recent report All Profit, No Risk: How bail companies exploit the legal system was made possible in part by local news investigations into the bail industry. Below, for journalists interested in doing their own investigations, we offer a few story ideas and several tips based on the lessons we learned in our research.

We encourage journalists to use our report and its appendices of local data as a primer on problems in the bail industry. Our 2016 report Detaining the Poor also explains how money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time for defendants.

Read on for three ideas for urgent, impactful stories, and tips for pursuing them. Or skip to general tips for investigating the bail industry.

  1. Are bail companies actually bringing their clients to court?
    • Why this matters: Many people don’t realize that the primary service bail companies claim to perform — ensuring their clients’ appearance in court — is likely already being taken care of by three other parties: law enforcement, “pretrial services” agencies, and defendants themselves. Police, in the everyday course of their jobs, often encounter people who have a “bench warrant” for missing a previous court date, arrest them, and bring them to jail. In jurisdictions with pretrial services agencies, those agencies notify people of court dates, helping ensure their timely appearance. Finally, defendants who miss court usually do so for non-malicious reasons: the court failed to make their hearing date clear, they forgot, or their hearing conflicted with family or work obligations. These defendants often return themselves to court. When bail companies are doing little or no work to ensure clients’ court appearance, it raises the question of what purpose these companies serve besides acting as (predatory) lenders to low-income people.
    • Tips for investigating it: Your local jail may keep records showing who brought in bonded defendants (i.e., defendants released on money bail) following a “failure to appear” (or FTA). Jails also often have records showing how many arrests by law enforcement have “failure to appear” as the reason for arrest. These records — for which you will likely have to submit a public records request — will help you discern how often police, as compared to bail agents, are bringing in defendants who missed a court date.
  2. How much bail owed by companies is not being collected by courts?
    • Why this matters:As we explain in All Profit, No Risk, thanks to loopholes and cracks in the money bail system (many of which the bail industry has lobbied for), bail companies can usually get around paying bail forfeitures, i.e., bail bonds owed to the courts when a client fails to appear in court. Over time, this problem sometimes deprives public agencies of funding — like in Wake County, North Carolina, where schools sued for $1.2 million in bail bond money that was supposed to be forfeited to the courts and routed to the school system. Knowing the full value of bail bonds that companies pay to courts every year — compared to the value of all the bonds companies owe to courts when bonds are forfeited — can help counties and states understand their money bail systems. If bail companies are paying only a fraction of what they owe, it is likely because of numerous loopholes and cracks in the system, and policymakers will want to consider whether getting rid of money bail is more efficient than trying to collect more forfeitures, or more sensible than continuing to subsidize the bail industry by maintaining the status quo.
    • Tips for investigating it:
      • Call your state Department of Insurance. (See a list of state departments of insurance here.) Typically, the Department of Insurance is responsible for licensing both bail bond agencies and the insurance companies that underwrite their activities. You might ask the Department questions like:
        • How many violations by/complaints about bail bond companies were reported over [some date range]?
        • How many companies (or which companies) have had ability to write bonds suspended/revoked over [some date range]?
        • Can you share any internal investigations/audits/communications about bail bond company practices (particularly related to forfeitures)?
      • Reach out to your state or local auditor’s office. We found that several auditors had done extensive investigations of bail bond related problems.
      • Municipal courts often keep records of what happens to every bail bond that is written, including whether it is forfeited and whether the forfeited bond is paid. (Sometimes this information is kept in something called a “Bond Book” or similar.) A clerk at your local court may be able to answer questions like:
        • How many notices of forfeiture (or similar) were filed for bail bonds in [some time period]? You can ask them to compare the number of forfeitures to the number of surety bonds posted, or to the number “exonerated” (i.e. cleared/not forfeited), etc.
        • How many “motions to vacate” (exonerate) forfeited bail bonds were filed and/or granted?
        • How many summary judgments (i.e. orders to companies to pay forfeited bail bonds) were entered? How many of those were “set aside” (forgiven/cancelled)?
      • You can also ask a local court clerk how many “shutdown notices” (or similar) the court received in a given time period, instructing it to stop accepting bonds from specific bail bond agents/companies that had failed to pay summary judgments. (This may not be the same process everywhere, but something similar should be outlined in your state’s statute about bail forfeiture.)
      • If your local court doesn’t keep the detailed information about bail bonds mentioned above, try asking your local Sheriff’s Office.
      • Your D.A. or County Counsel (or similar) is ultimately responsible for prosecuting bail companies when they refuse to pay forfeitures they owe to courts. The prosecutor’s office should be able to answer questions like:
        • How many bail forfeitures were referred for prosecution in the past year/5 years? How many did the D.A.’s office decide to prosecute/pursue (as opposed to how many cases stopped at this point)?
        • How were those prosecuted forfeitures resolved? What was the number of successful prosecutions/collections? How many were negotiated down to lesser amounts?
      • Assuming forfeited bail money is eventually routed to county and/or state funds, the Treasurer’s office may have records about how much was received.
  3. How is the bail industry lobbying for favorable conditions in your area?
    • Why this matters: The bail industry is more active in politics than many people realize — for example, North Carolina Policy Watch reported that between 2002 and 2016, the North Carolina Bail Agents Association “took credit for helping to pass 60 laws ‘helping N.C. bondsmen make and save more money and protect their livelihood.'” The public has a right to know when companies are pushing for reforms that will make it even harder for courts to hold them accountable. Moreover, if you can gauge the lengths the bail industry will go to in order to protect its bottom line, your readers will think critically about what role — if any — private industry ought to play in the criminal justice system.
    • Tips for investigating it:
      • Make sure you have the full scope of the bail industry where you live: not just bail companies, but their insurance underwriters (the state Department of Insurance should know which companies these are), and any local or state-based associations of bail professionals.
      • Most (if not all) states require private entities to submit quarterly reports of lobbying activity. Lobbying records are sometimes kept by the Secretary of State’s office. For example, in California, lobbying entities report quarterly to the state, and the Secretary of State publishes a lot of information online.
      • Screenshot of a bail company's listing on an online report of lobbying activity.
      • Look for political contributions made by bail industry actors to elected prosecutors and judges.
      • Explore who is behind any recent bail-related ballot initiatives that might benefit the bail industry.

* * *

General tips for investigating the bail industry

  1. If you’re just getting started, use Appendix Table 2 from our report All Profit, No Risk to find the statutes governing the bail process in your state. The statutes should help you understand who is involved in the bail process (i.e., who to contact for story leads).
    • These statutes may also specify where and how records of bail bonds are kept. In most areas, some agency — typically a court, jail, or sheriff’s office — is tracking every bond that is written and what happens to that bond, often in a ledger informally called a “Bond Book.”
    • Pro tip: Before submitting any public records requests from agencies involved in the bail process, make sure those offices and/or the information you’re requesting aren’t exempt from FOIA requirements. State laws exempt certain government actors from public records requests, particularly the judiciary. This varies by state. Some criminal justice records are exempt (i.e., if they have personally identifying information). You may need to specify that redacted records (i.e., those with personal information removed) are acceptable. See our Public records request guide for links to more information.
  2. Certain state agencies and offices may be able to tell you about problems in the local bail industry:
    • The state Department of Insurance is responsible for licensing both bail bond agencies and the insurance companies that underwrite their activities. Sometimes, these departments maintain public registers of bail companies that have had their licenses suspended for violations, like failing to pay bonds owed to courts.
    • The state or county auditor’s office may have audited the bail system in the past.
    • The local District Attorney is ultimately responsible for prosecuting bail companies’ misconduct, and may be able to tell you about cases it has prosecuted or that have been referred for prosecution.
    • And, of course, someone at your local court can tell you about the court’s day-to-day relationship with bail companies and any regular problems that occur.
  3. To maximize your chances of finding useful information, cast a wide net when talking to agencies about the bail industry and bail process:
    • In addition to your official information requests, ask agencies you contact for general help with your investigation, blaming any recordkeeping problems you’ve encountered in other parts of the jurisdiction’s processes.
    • You can ask any office what types of information/data they maintain about the bail system and bail payments, to get ideas for follow up (i.e., when you don’t know what records might be available).
    • If you’re looking into a specific type of misconduct in the bail industry, you can ask any office for guidelines or instructions they have about how to treat such misconduct. (For example, you could ask a D.A.’s office about any internal guidelines on how to treat cases where a bail company is refusing to pay forfeited bonds to the court.)
  4. Keep in mind that the absence of data is itself a story. At the very least, you should be able to find out who is keeping track of bail companies that have not abided by court rules and what happens to every bail bond that is written. If that information is hard to locate, or if government agencies refuse to share it even with personal information redacted, consider writing a story that asks why the government is hoarding data that could be used to hold the bail industry — one that has a troubled record of corruption and abuse — accountable.

Wanda Bertram is the Communications Strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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