Behind Many ‘Mom and Pop’ Bail Bonds Shops Is a Huge Insurance Corporation Out to Profit from Misery

Bail Bonds Shops

Eleven years ago, San Diego, California, resident Melodie Henderson was arrested for assault after a minor altercation with a former coworker. Her bail was set at $50,000. This was before a judge ever laid eyes on her.

Although she was employed, there was just no way Melodie would ever have been able to come up with the $50,000 she needed to post bail to be released while she fought her case in court. Her other option was to pay a bail bonds company a 10% nonrefundable fee, but with a $50,000 bail amount, it would be hard for her to come up with the $5,000 on her own. Of course there was third option: to sit in jail while her case moved forward, but that wasn’t an option at all. She was in her early 20s, working and going to school part time, while also taking care of her 6-year-old sister and her grandmother, who was undergoing chemotherapy. Her bail felt like punishment before she even went to trial.

So it was her grandparents, who were on a fixed monthly income, who faced the decision to either go into debt to get Melodie released as her case moved forward or let her sit in jail, lose her job, and fight her case while she was in custody.

They decided to go through a bail bonds company to get Melodie out. The result was a financial burden no person or their family should bear: making a hefty down payment and then monthly payments to the bail bonds company — with interest. Had her and her family been wealthy and able to afford the entire $50,000 bail amount up front, things would have been much different.  They would have eventually gotten all their money back (minus some fees) from the courts. That was not the case with the bail bonds company.

Every year millions of people are locked up in jail nationwide before they even get their day in court — all because they cannot afford to post bail and buy their freedom.

Even after her case was resolved and she completed community service and served a period of probation, her and her family’s debt to the bail bonds industry continued. Sadly, she isn’t alone.

>> Take Action: Tell California Legislators to Support Bail Reform Now

As detailed in a report released today by Color Of Change and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, every year millions of people are locked up in jail nationwide before they even get their day in court — all because they cannot afford to post bail and buy their freedom.

Some, like Melodie, are able to pool resources together, often with the help of family members, to pay the nonrefundable 10 percent fee for-profit bail companies typically charge. This is a hardship masquerading as a tool of justice.

The report, “Selling Off Our Freedom: How Insurance Corporations Have Taken Over Our Bail System,” exposes insurance corporations’ hand in creating an unnecessary and largely unaccountable $2 billion bail industry that ensnares thousands of people in detention or debt – or both. Insurers, including corporations like Bail USA, Seneca Insurance, and United States Surety, collect around 10 percent of the premium bail agents charge families.

Like in many states, California’s money bail system – where low to moderate-income people are unable to post money bail and have to either sit in jail or pay a bail bonds company a nonrefundable fee for their freedom – prioritizes bail insurance corporations’ profits over justice. While people are trapped in jail or debt, these conglomerates reap large benefits at low risk, all the while evading oversight.

money bail reformTheir evasion is purposeful. The bail bonds industry portrays itself as small, “mom and pop” bail bonds agencies that secure release from jail for a nonrefundable fee. In reality, multinational insurance corporations dominate the industry, underwriting each bond. In fact, fewer than 10 large insurers underwrite a majority of the approximately $14 billion in bail bonds issued in the United States each year. This money bail system allows corporate insurers to operate with little risk, meaning the industry profits even when its customers do not show up for court. It is a win-win for them. It is a lose-lose for justice.

People like Melodie spend years trying to pay back the bail bonds company to get back on track. They are forced to put their lives on hold, let bills go unpaid, and take severe hits to their credit. Many are people already struggling to make ends meet, and many are people of color.

This is not a system of justice. It is a system of corporate greed that negatively impacts millions of people, especially low-income families and communities of color.

Now 32 years old, Melodie is a small business owner, mother, and caretaker of her two younger sisters. The road for her was long and difficult. Yet her story could have been much different if she hadn’t been expected to buy her freedom. She hopes people understand that California’s current money bail system doesn’t promote justice and public safety but rather injustice and harm to the people, families, and communities ensnared by it.

Fortunately, California lawmakers introduced The California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017 (AB 42 and SB 10), two identical bills that will truly protect the wellbeing and safety of communities. The bills will reduce the number of people locked up because they are unable to pay to get out of jail while their cases move forward. The bills will also prioritize services to help people make their court appearances and curb the state’s overreliance on the current money bail system. They build upon commonsense solutions adopted in other jurisdictions that have significantly reduced their use of commercial bail, such as Kentucky; Santa Clara, California; and Washington, D.C.California needs to pass this legislation in the name of justice.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli

And the rest of the nation should follow suit with similar state-based legislation that puts the economic security, wellbeing, and safety of our communities before bail insurance companies’ profits. We need to create a system of justice that works for everyone.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli
ACLU of Northern California

About Margaret Dooley-Sammuli

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is Senior Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Advocate, ACLU of California. Before joining the ACLU, she was the deputy state director in Southern California with the Drug Policy Alliance, where she led the organization’s statewide criminal justice advocacy. In 2008, she was deputy campaign manager for Yes on Prop 5, a ballot initiative that would have significantly expanded access to drug treatment while safely reducing prison overcrowding. Before joining DPA, she spent five years in China where she was an editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit. She holds a degree from Bryn Mawr College.


  1. the Nose Knows says:

    I went through two criminal trials as Power of Attorney for a friend who is now in the Joint. He hit up his friends, co-workers and family to make his bail. I know the financial strain this placed on everyone and the emotional hit that my friend’s self-esteem took in asking, nevermind trying to pay back when convicted. (That became my job.)
    So, I don’t quite understand the nexus between insurance companies and the criminal justice system. Believe me, judges don’t lock people up just to line the pockets of bail bondsmen.
    And I don’t understand using Melodie as an object lesson. She assaulted somebody; I’m sure her co-workers, especially the assaultee (yeah, that’s not a real word), were glad to see her locked up.
    (If I were assaulted at work and the offending co-worker was back at work the next week, out on bail, I would think my employer would be looking at some serious hostile workplace issues.)
    And, given that Melodie fulfilled her community service and probation, there seems little question as to her guilt. Trite but true, if you can’t pay the fine or do the time, don’t do the crime.
    Yes, bail can be an onerous burden but its intent is not punishment but rather insurance (no pun intended) that the accused will show up for his day in court. As we have seen in some high-profile cases, even that is no guarantee the accused will show.
    I would ask Ms. Dooley-Sammul to explain how the proffered alternatives provide relief to the accused and assurances to the People that the accused won’t take it on the lam.