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Inside the Wild, Shadowy, and Highly Lucrative Bail Industry

How $550 and a five-day class gets you the right to stalk, arrest, and shoot people.

Sophia's life hadn't been going well. She was 19 and had just had a baby. She and her boyfriend got into fights, which sometimes turned violent. One day, she took her son and moved in with a friend. Shortly afterward, her boyfriend came to take the baby for a visit. He didn't bring him back. A legal battle ensued, and he won. Sophia drank too much, according to her mom, and after losing custody of her child, she drank even more. She would sometimes fly into rages. At her mom's house over Christmas, she kept calling her ex-boyfriend. "Why can't I see the baby?" she shouted into the phone. When her mom tried to calm her, Sophia hit her.

Not long after that, Sophia was picked up by the police, who found her walking down the street drunk. She wanted her mom to bail her out, but her mom was tired of this pattern.

"Not this time," she told Sophia. She just wanted her to stay in jail for a night. Sophia needed to learn a lesson.

Sophia didn't know what to do. Her bail was set at $3,500. She didn't have the $350 to pay a bondsman. That's when she thought of Langevin. He was her bondsman the last time she got in trouble. He'd friended her on Facebook. She called him up, and he agreed to bail her out even though she couldn't pay his fee. Normally, he'd require a cosigner, who'd promise to pay the bail if Sophia skipped court. But he'd waive that requirement too. He just needed to know where she was. "He said, 'Come stay on my couch,'" she said.

A couple of weeks later, Sophia called her mom. She wanted to leave Langevin's place. She said he kept asking her to have sex with him. She didn't like it, but he told her she owed him money and she couldn't leave until it was paid. She said he threatened to send her back to jail. Her mom started making payments on the $350 she owed. Meanwhile, Langevin offered Sophia Adderall and drinks and she became pregnant.

She got an abortion. Later, she said, she told Langevin she wanted a new bondsman. She felt "dirty." "He's basically like, 'You better not try to get me in trouble because…I can take you back [to jail] whenever I want to,'" she said. "'All I have to do is slap handcuffs on you.'" She gathered up her things and left in the middle of the night.

The potential for abuse is a major reason why commercial bail never caught on worldwide. The only other country that allows someone to make a profit off bail is the Philippines. In Canada, selling bail bonds can earn you two years in prison on a charge equivalent to bribing a juror. In Australia, a government commission rejected the idea of introducing commercial bail in part because "it lends itself to abuses such as collusive ties between bondsmen and organized crime or police, lawyers, and court officials."

Those kinds of abuses periodically gain public attention in the United States. For example, two judges and the biggest bondsman of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, went to prison after the FBI discovered the bondsman was bribing judges with bottles of Absolut vodka, envelopes of cash, and lap dancers. A case has been dragging on in Kansas against a bondsman, Dwight Jurgens, who is accused of attempting to coerce at least four women into sex in lieu of bail. Bondsmen I've talked to condemn such acts, but argue that even so, there is no better way to prevent a defendant from fleeing than putting a third party on the hook financially.

Evidence suggests otherwise. In Washington, DC, where there have been no bail bondsmen since 1992, more than 80 percent of defendants are released before trial. Only 12 percent fail to appear for at least one court hearing; in Dallas, one of the most pro-bail counties in the nation, 26 percent fail to show up. In Kentucky, where for-profit bail has been banned for 38 years, 74 percent of defendants are released before trial. Only 6 percent of felony defendants fail to appear for court. Likewise, 10 percent of felony defendants are rearrested in Kentucky while on pretrial release. By contrast, 18 percent of defendants released on commercial bail nationwide don't show up, according to a 2007 study.

"Criminal-justice policy happens to be a field with one of the greatest disconnects between what we know and what we do," said Michael Jacobson, former director of the Vera Institute. "It's a research-driven field like medicine, but we also have toxic politics to deal with…If you were just basing policy off research, there would be no consideration of money bail."

The man who has done more than anyone else to expand commercial bail is ABC's executive director emeritus, Dennis Bartlett. A droopy-faced man in his 70s, Bartlett can be alternately churlish and kind. Over a six-month period, I saw him speak in Vegas, shared Buffalo wings with him in Virginia, and spoke to him several times on the telephone. He fancies himself a philosopher. When writing about the politics of bail, he likes to reference Kant. He uses phrases like libido dominandi when describing pretrial reformers, and he likens their literature to Mao's Little Red Book.

Bartlett and the lobbyists he hired were recently active in Oregon, a state that banned bail bondsmen in 1978. They came close to relegalizing them last year after, an ABC executive told me, the association spent $250,000 to promote the idea. That same year, ABC succeeded in slipping a provision into a Wisconsin budget bill that would have brought back bondsmen and bounty hunters, now banned in the state. (Under pressure from Wisconsin judges, prosecutors, and sheriffs, Gov. Scott Walker issued a last-minute line-item veto.)

Before joining ABC, Bartlett worked for the CIA and Interpol, as well as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative organization that brings corporations and state legislators together to create model legislation. ALEC's private-sector members, who pay dues of $7,000 to $25,000 a year, get to help write bills that benefit their industries. Legislators pay $50 a year, which covers all-expenses-paid trips for them and their families to ALEC functions.

Next to Walmart and Bank of America, the bail industry was a small fish in ALEC, but ABC quickly climbed into leadership positions. ABC has written at least 11 ALEC "model bills" regarding bail; the most recent would vastly expand the business of bondsmen and bounty hunters by allowing courts to require a bond as a condition for early release from prison. Measures in this vein—which essentially turn bondsmen into private parole officers—have passed in Michigan, Mississippi, and South Dakota. In South Dakota, a parole-bond bill was championed by Rep. Dan Lederman, an ALEC member whose bail company claims more than 150 agents in eight states.

ALEC has other bills that help bondsmen—and bail sureties—increase their revenue. One aims to loosen the regulations for forfeitures, the money that bondsmen are supposed to pay the court when a defendant skips. Under the ALEC proposals, no payment is required from the bondsman if the fugitive is arrested within six months. (Even without such laws, bondsmen can often get away with not paying up: In 2011, the New York Times found that bondsmen owed the city at least $2 million, and the Dallas Morning News revealed that bondsmen owed Dallas County $35 million. Officials in Louisiana's East Baton Rouge Parish told me they were owed about $1 million.)

ABC and ALEC have also sought to widen the customer base of the bail industry with a model bill that dramatically reduces the numbers of crimes in which judges can release people on their own recognizance. It would make bail mandatory for many nonviolent offenses like racketeering and drug possession, as well as resisting arrest and failure to disperse, a charge often issued to demonstrators. Versions of the bill were enacted in Georgia in 2010, Louisiana in 2012, and Mississippi and New Jersey last year.

Perhaps the most far reaching measure to expand the use of financial bail went on the ballot in Colorado in 2010. It would have prevented judges from releasing defendants on their own recognizance unless they were first-time, nonviolent offenders. Someone busted tagging or drinking in public for the second time would have had to post bail.

Pushing the measure was a group called Safe Streets Colorado. It took a hard line against pretrial services, which it called "criminal welfare programs." At a tea party rally in Denver, the head of the campaign, Mike Donovan, said these programs were tantamount to the government using tax dollars "to enslave and control its citizens." Safe Streets aimed to "stop the government from releasing the most heinous to rape and pillage our communities." The group ran television ads narrated by children's voices that depicted a "fugitive" busting into a home and shooting up a family. In fact, the proposition would have done nothing to prevent judges from releasing dangerous offenders—it would only have ensured that they had to do business with bail bondsmen.

Safe Streets kept close the fact that Donovan himself had no connection to Colorado: He was the Virginia-based chief lobbyist of Bail USA, one of the largest bail sureties in the country. One of the most vocal proponents of the measure, Colorado state Sen. Vicki Marble, also operated a bail bonds company. In the end, the measure lost at the ballot box.

I met with Donovan in the back room of a bail bonds office in Fairfax, Virginia. He was dressed in a clerical gown and collar; aside from lobbying in 15 states for the bail industry, he was also a minister. His faith had not been part of his public persona in Colorado—it was only recently that he became active in his ministry. He decided to begin preaching in a church shortly after making disturbing discoveries about some local bondsmen, including Langevin. "Unfortunately, we had a system that allowed predators to have control" over women like Sophia, he told me.

He lodged a complaint against Langevin with the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), the Virginia body that licenses bondsmen. But the grievance went nowhere, and Donovan was shocked to discover that it was completely legal for bondsmen to have sex with their clients. So he did what he knew best—he lobbied. In 2013, Virginia lawmakers passed a law to prohibit such acts, the only one he knows of in the nation.

I asked Donovan if he'd put me in touch with Sophia. He said he'd try. A few days later he called me to say he had some terrible news. Sophia was dead. She'd overdosed on prescription pills. There'd been no suicide note.

We'll probably never know the exact nature of Sophia's relationship with Langevin, but what is clear is that Sophia was a vulnerable young woman. She was suffering from intense depression, if not psychosis. When I met her weeping mother in a Virginia Beach restaurant, she repeatedly told me her daughter was "out of her mind." Sophia had nowhere to turn. Langevin supplied her with drink, knowing she was an alcoholic; he pressured her into sex after she resisted; he threatened to send her back to jail. This, at least, is what Sophia recounted in an audio interview that Donovan gave to DCJS. It is difficult to imagine that such a situation would have arisen had Sophia's liberty not been left in the hands of a loosely regulated businessman.

Her name was not Sophia. Her mother asked that I use a pseudonym, lest Sophia's son someday find this story. DCJS knows her real name. They would not speak to me about her or Langevin, but when I acquired their file on Langevin through a Freedom of Information Act request, I found records showing they'd read the transcripts of Sophia's interviews with Donovan. In Langevin's file, I found records showing that he'd been arrested in another state for illegal drug possession. I also found police records of his shooting of Jason Turner. Jason, Joy, and Sophia were all punished for their offenses, yet there is no indication that there has been so much as a serious investigation by DCJS into Langevin's actions. After shooting Jason, he was still authorized to use a firearm on the job.

Langevin refused to speak to me about Joy, Jason, or Sophia. All he would say was that the shooting was "very stressful" for him. I eventually got through to his lawyer, who told me Langevin has quit the bail business. He's gone back to being an auto mechanic.

This story was supported by grants from the Puffin Foundation and the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

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