Wisconsin: Open for Bounty Hunters

In another win for well-connected right-wing interests, Wisconsin Rep. Robin Vos (R-63) squeezed a last-minute provision into the budget on Friday, June 3 that moves Wisconsin towards re-introducing bail bondsmen (and bounty hunters) to the state, a corruptive practice that has been prohibited since 1979. Like much of the dairy state’s recent legislative activity, this latest effort is smudged with the fingerprints of the American Legislative Exchange Council and well-funded lobbying interests.

Judicial Corruption and Commercial Bail-Bonding Go Hand-in-Hand

“Commercial bail bonds lead to corruption,” says Rep. Fred Kessler (D-12), a former circuit judge who led the charge to abolish the practice in Wisconsin. “And corruption is why we did away with it.”

Private bail-bond companies benefit when judges set higher bail. Under the privatized system, a person charged with a crime pays the bail-bondsman 10 percent of the bail set by a judge –- the higher the bail, the higher the profits. There is a strong incentive to influence or elect judges who are "friendly" to the bail bond industry, and a long list of successes. Last December, for example, former federal judge Thomas Porteus was impeached by the Louisiana Senate after an FBI investigation revealed he had been accepting “campaign contributions” and other kickbacks from a bail-bond company in exchange for favorable treatment.

According to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, the return of the practice to Wisconsin "will primarily benefit out-of-state interests, the large bail-bond corporations" motivated "purely by financial interests" at the expense of public safety. "Bail-bond companies have no direct interest in what happens once a person leaves jail," Chisolm says, as long as they get their fee. Commercial bail-bonding will also place unnecessary financial burdens on low-income residents and, according to most experts, actually increase jail populations.

And little evidence suggests the practice saves taxpayers anything. The industry is very profitable, though, with significant political connections and clout.

Bail Bond Basics

Since commercial bail-bonding was banned in 1979, Wisconsin’s pretrial system has been managed by the courts or local government. A person charged with a crime has their bail set by a judge, based on considerations of public safety and whether the person is a flight risk, and the accused pays the court directly. (A judge can also release a person on their own recognizance.) A person who skips their hearing forfeits the bail and the state issues an arrest warrant. The court or local government keeps the fees paid, and depending on the severity of the offense, law enforcement will conduct a manhunt or arrest the person the next time they are stopped. If the person appears at court, the amount paid is refunded, minus court fees, providing a financial incentive to show up. Chisolm says Milwaukee County has also been exploring ways to "get money out of the bail process altogether," using evidence-based practices "to determine who should not be released and who can be released under supervision," with necessary intervention to keep persons from reoffending.

Under the commercial bail bond system, a defendant pays 10 percent of the judicially determined bail directly to a private bail-bond company as a "bond" that they will appear at the court date. The fee is non-refundable -– even if a person shows up to their court date and are found innocent, they lose the amount paid, which can be a significant loss for low-income defendants. Those who cannot afford to lose the 10 percent fee, or for whom the bondsman does not accept, stay in jail. Some bail bond agents will set up payment plans for those who cannot afford the fee, but often at high interest rates that, according to Chisholm, "resemble the predatory practices of the cash loan industry" and trap low-income individuals into a cycle of debt. If the person does not show up to the court date, the bail bond company is obligated to pay the full bond unless they can track down their “client” and bring them to court.

Enter the bounty hunters -- state-licensed private mercenaries who will hunt down bail-jumpers and bring them to court. In many states, bounty hunters can break into homes without being constrained by the Constitution’s pesky warrant requirements, temporarily imprison the accused, and move detainees across state lines without extradition approval.

The bail bond industry is fabulously profitable and a major lobbying force, pushing laws that support their business and opposing alternative pre-trial release programs at the state level. That lobbying power may have something to do with bail bondsmen across the country not paying states the required bail forfeiture when “clients” jump bail; according to Kessler, Wisconsin had the same problem when bail-bondsmen were in the state.

Bail Bonds, ALEC, and Wisconsin

The American Bail Coalition is the commercial bail bond industry’s national organization and lobbying wing, and plays a major role in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is the national organization that, with input from and approval by Big Business, drafts “model bills” for conservative legislators to introduce in their states.

“When I went to the ALEC website and saw their bills on bail-bonding, I had a hunch it would be coming here,” Kessler said. “When I saw that they were hiring lobbyists, I knew they would be moving on this.”

The State Chair of ALEC in Wisconsin, Rep. Robin Vos (R-63), introduced the budget provision in Joint Finance that paves the way for bail bondsmen to return to the state. And the American Bail Coalition registered a second lobbyist in the state on June 1, just as the Joint Finance Committee convened.

Not the First Time

This is not the first time that ALEC-connected Wisconsin legislators have tried reversing the commercial bail-bond prohibition. In 2003, the effort was led by Rep. Scott Suder (R-69), a longtime ALEC alum and former co-chair of the ALEC “Criminal Justice Task Force,” which was also co-chaired by representatives of the American Bail Coalition (formerly known as the National Association of Bail Companies). At the time, editorial boards from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal wrote in opposition to the Suder-sponsored plan. In response, ALEC board member and American Bail Coalition representative William B. Carmichael wrote an op-ed in the Wisconsin State Journal defending commercial bail bonds; Carmichael also donated to Suder's campaign the previous year.

Commercial Bail-Bond Defenders

Despite the claims of Carmichael and Reps. Suder and Vos, research does not strongly support the efficacy of the commercial bail bond practice. Arguments strongly in favor of commercial bail bonds come from the usual suspects. For example, the reports referenced on the American Bail Coalition website were created by ALEC. Even a January 2011 article from George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok supporting commercial bail-bonding is of questionable origin. Tabarrok is the Bartley J. Madden Chair of Economics at George Mason’s “market-oriented” think tank Mercatus Center and Research Director at the libertarian Independent Institute think tank. The Mercatus Center was founded and is largely funded by the Koch Family Foundations, and Charles Koch and another top Koch official sit on its Board of Directors. The Independent Institute has also received Koch funding. Among Kochs' many activities, they fund ALEC and top Koch officials sit on the ALEC board.

Costs to Taxpayers, Judicial Integrity

The commercial bail bond industry likes to claim the practice ensures defendants show up to trial "at no cost to the taxpayer." But this ignores the practice's other expenses.

Individuals who cannot afford to lose the bondsman's 10% fee will remain in jail at significant cost to the taxpayer (around sixty dollars per day). “Wisconsin saw a 5-6% decrease in its jail population” after commercial bail-bonding was banned in 1979, Kessler says, “and will likely see a 5-6% increase if the practice comes back.” Contrast this with Wisconsin's current system, where a person can front the money with the security it will be refunded when they appear at their court date.

For those that do skip court, a shift to private bail-bonds means that counties will no longer keep the bail forfeiture. And as mentioned above, many bail-bond companies never actually pay the state when their "clients" jump bail.

Additionally, under the commercial bail-bond system, the ultimate decision about whether the accused goes free is in the hands of a private business, which makes its decision based on economic concerns, rather than a judge, who considers whether a person is a flight risk or endangers public safety. Commercial bail-bond businesses make more money off granting bond to a higher-bail, higher-risk defendant than a person accused of lesser crimes with lower bail. John Goldkamp, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, told the New York Times “it’s really the only place in the criminal justice system where a liberty decision is governed by a profit-making businessman who will or will not take your business.”

And when judges accept the bail bondsman’s kickbacks, the initial bail decision also gets distorted. Kessler gives an example of civil rights protestors arrested in the 1960s who were given high bail “not because they were a flight risk, but because it benefits the bondsmen.”

Wisconsin's New Motto: Backward

Since 1979, Wisconsin has been ahead of most U.S. states in banning commercial bail-bonding (46 states still use the practice), joining the rest of the world in recognizing the practice as illicit. Posting another person's bail for profit is criminalized in countries like England and Canada, and only dominates pretrial release in the U.S. and the Phillipines.

The return of bail bonds will have a disproportionate impact on Wisconsin's low-income residents, a population that has grown due to the economic downturn. Tim Murray, head of the Pretrial Justice Institute, says the commercial bail-bond system "favors those who have the money to purchase their release pending trial, while it punishes others before their trial — not for what they've been accused of, but because they lack the cash to purchase their freedom."

Poor defendants’ only option will be to redirect limited household resources towards bond services, rather than rent and food; even if they are found innocent, the money paid is lost (rather than refunded, as is the case under the current system). Spending on commercial bail bonds comes at the expense of those who have the least, at the point when they are most vulnerable, to benefit a very few. The payment to the bondsman is also a de facto "penalty enhancer," an additional fine that goes above-and-beyond the penalties assigned by law and by the judge, and one that applies regardless of whether one is ultimately found innocent or guilty.

"We don't need that in Wisconsin"

In the wake of a highly contentious state Supreme Court race (for an already politicized Court) and a hotly debated Dane County Circuit Court decision, Wisconsin's faith in its judicial system is at a low point. Commercial bail-bonding would introduce new opportunities for judicial corruption, or the appearance of corruption, further diminishing the public's faith in the judiciary. And with the state's recently passed concealed carry law, allowing bounty hunters to roam the state and enter homes without warrants may not be the best plan for public safety. And if a few innocent people are caught in the crossfire, their ability to recover against the bail-bondsman and bounty hunter will be limited, thanks to the recent cap on "punitive damages" (the compensation available in personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits intended to deter wrongdoing). Like the incentive to influence judges, bail bondsmen will have an incentive to write off collateral damage to innocent citizens as a "cost of business."

According to former Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann, "Wherever the bail bond system goes, it appears corruption goes with it. We don't need that in Wisconsin." At least some Wisconsin Republicans seem to share McCann's concerns. Republican Senators Glenn Grothman and Joe Leibham joined Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee in voting against Rep. Vos' proposal. The full legislature votes on the budget -- and the bail bond provision -- next week.

This article was updated at 10:45 A.M. with quotes from District Attorney John Chisolm.

UPDATE: DOG The Bounty Hunter is coming to Wisconsin! 


"Bail-bond companies have no direct interest in what happens once a person leaves jail," Chisolm says, as long as they get their fee. Commercial bail-bonding will also place unnecessary financial burdens on low-income residents and, according to most experts, actually increase jail populations." PoppyCock!!! Bail bonding companies have the ultimate, "direct interest" in what happens once one of their client leaves jail - financial survival. If a bondsman has about 5% of his clients fail to appear, his underwriters get very nervous. Any more than that and he is likely to be put out of business. Further, bail bonding companies, via bail enforcement agents, return (nationwide) roughly 85% of bail fugitives AT NO COST TO TAXPAYERS.

I appreciate your use of the term "poppycock," but many bail-bond agents have a very limited interest in what happens when their "client" leaves jail. Their primary motivation is profit -- the side effects of what happens when a person is released is not particularly relevant to the bail-bond business (especially since bail bondsmen don't face liability for the conduct of their "clients"). For example, last month in Washington State an alleged child rapist “bail shopped” and got out of jail after posting only $3,000 of $190,000 bail, then killed 4 police officers. http://www.kimatv.com/news/local/121362079.html You mention that bail bondsmen have an economic incentive for their client to reappear, but as the article mentions, many times a bail bondsman's debts to the court are forgiven (thereby limiting the economic incentive to make sure someone shows up). From an NPR investigation last year on for-profit bail bondsmen in Lubbock, Texas: "Statistically, most bail jumpers are not caught by bondsmen or their bounty hunters. They're caught by sheriff's deputies, according to Beni Hemmeline from Lubbock's district attorney's office. "More often than not, the defendants are rearrested on a warrant that's issued after they fail to appear," Hemmeline said.Asked if the bondsmen are fulfilling their end of the deal, Hemmeline says, "Well, it may be that [the bondsmen] can't find them. They can't camp at the door 24 hours a day. They do the best that they can, I think." If a defendant does run, the bondsman is also supposed to pay the county the full cost of the bond as a sort of punishment for not keeping an eye on the client. But that doesn't happen, either, Hemmeline says. Hemmeline says Lubbock usually settles for a far lower amount than the full bond. In fact, according to the county treasurer in Lubbock, bondsmen usually only pay 5 percent of the bond when a client runs. Consider that math for a minute. The bondsmen charge clients at least 10 percent. But if the client runs, they only have to pay the county 5 percent. Meaning if they make no effort whatsoever, they still profit. Hemmeline says asking for more might put the bondsmen out of business. "Bond companies serve an important purpose," she says. NPR found bondsmen getting similar breaks in other states. In California, bondsmen owe counties $150 million that they should have had to pay when their clients failed to show up for court. In New Jersey, bondsmen owe $250,000 over the past four years. In Erie, Pa., officials stopped collecting money for a time because it was too much of a hassle to get the bonding companies to pay up." http://www.npr.org/2010/01/21/122725771/Bail-Burden-Keeps-U-S-Jails-Stuffed-With-Inmates The larger issue here is that a profit-oriented business is in the position of deciding which accused persons can get out of jail, and which do not. This means that people who don't have the money to pay the bailbondsmen stay in jail, and those who have it get out. It also interferes with alternative pre-trial release programs like those mentioned in Milwaukee. As for NO COST TO TAXPAYERS, the NPR investigation suggests that taxpayer-funded law enforcement officers tend to catch more bail-jumpers than bounty hunters; as for other "costs to taxpayers," please read under the "Costs to Taxpayers, Judicial Integrity" heading in my article.

Speaking as someone who has wanted to be a Bounty Hunter since he was a child, is a democrat and had gone to school for Criminal Justice, I see nothing wrong with it. I want to be a Bounty Hunter and correct me if I am wrong but I happen to think getting criminals off the street is actually a good thing. The only people who dissagree with getting criminals off the street should be criminals and those who hire criminals.

i think bounty hunting should be legal everywhere yes i admit that alot of bondsman are in it for the money just like some bountyhunters are I am here to not only arrest a fugitive or bail skip but to educate the bail indsustry on new ways to catch a criminal i have my associates degree in criminal justice and have been studying criminal justice since the age of 16 80 to 90% of fugitive recovery agents arrest our fugitives i i will back up bounty hunters all over the US The bail industry can be just as corrupt as any other part of this society look at other corrupt areas just saying but other states like florida need to allow bounty hunters to help keep the streets free from bail skips and fugitives on the run

You reference to the Washington State rapist that was released for only $3,000 down on a 190k bail... I could name 100's of cases where the judge has released a violent criminal on their own-recognizance and they have either killed or seriously injured a person, so to reference one case by a bail bondsman that obviously is not going to be in the business very long is ridiculous. Bail Bond companies owe nothing to the State of Minnesota if they did the Bail Bonds insurance company would have paid it and if they didn't both the Bail Bond company and the Insurance company would be shut down. I have been in the Bail Bond industry for 15 years in Minnesota and I have never heard of a bail bond going unpaid to the state. So if Wisconsin uses strict policies and procedures I dont forsee any money not being paid to the state since the insurance companies are required to have 5 million in a reserve account with the state of Wisconsin. I have also been called on numerous people in the state of Wisconsin on bail of $50,000 cash for help, these people were usually charged for some sort of drug case and in any other state this bail would be $50,000 to 100,000 bond where they would pay a bail bond company 10% or $5,000 - $10,000 and they would need a home or some other collateral worth the full amount of the bail but instead the Wisconsin judge is asking for a bail that fits someone accused of murder..... These people are innocent until proven guilty and they are forced to fight the charges while sitting in jail for the next 6 months and they very will could be innocent. Bail bonds has always been a family business and we take great pride in making sure our clients appear in court and if they failed to appear we would find them and return them to court! If we didn't our family's would be the ones to suffer the penalties. Bail Bonds is not a black and white process there is a lot going on with everything we do that you don't see on TV I strongly believe commercial bail bonds is what's right for everyone in the state of Wisconsin and I hope they move forward with it.

How did your state run it's Dept of Financial Services? We incur all the costs of keeping up with "Our Clients" once released from jail and pay enough in Forfeitures here to buy the officials new cars each year! If we don't pay we can't work! Your comment makes no sense in Florida. We also take the burden of chasing misdemeanor warrant skips, just tonight we caught a guy the S.O. has been looking for for weeks and couldn't catch, our Agent also caught a skip that the U.S. Marshalls couldn't get! Give us a break! We are the criminals babysitters so the REAL COPS can concentrate on real police work. Half of Florida would be out of work if you squashed Bail for Profit here and the criminals would be running amuck! P.S. We rarely even see a Judge for anything let alone pay them kickbacks, The Lawyers deal with the Judges and we must give clients the names of a minimum of 3 Lawyers so as not to be accused of getting kickbacks from THEM. The rules here are very strict and closely monitored. It takes every penny we make to keep our overhead and employees paid and fugitives recovered at 150.00 a pop when they're local and we only collected 100.00 in premium on anything from 0 - 1,000.00. There's 50. in the hole already. Dog and Beth have Big cars and nice things because of the show not because there's a fortune in Bail, It's hard work with high risk attached, we work hard and I'm personally offended that you degrade my profession by claiming we cause corruption. To correct you, We like everyone else are at the mercy of YOUR corruption!

Brendan you FALSE PROPHET claiming to represent the interests of the poor and middle-class: You, sir, are full of crap! Judges routinely and often impose excessive bail on the accused without any regards to their financial situations. If you knew how the system worked you'd understand why the poor people NEED BAIL BONDSMEN. If judges always (or at least more often) imposed signature bonds, we'd really have no need for bail bonds, would we? But in my case, I was accused years ago of an administrative crime, in a county where I lived. The judge imposed $250 cash bail. At the time I was really broke. I would have no problem coming up with $25 to go home and await my court dates, instead of lingering in jail for a crime I was NOT YET guilty of. BUT I DIDN'T HAVE THAT OPTION! Judges also tend to post cash bail based on not living in the area.....why? Because they can't predict if such accused would reappear in court or not. That's what makes such bail bonds agencies a godsend. I could also make a point about judges always imposing unnecessary bail conditions, such as no alcohol on those who are accused of crimes not relating to alcohol, but that would be a little off-topic. Nevertheless you have this deluded idea that all judges in Wisconsin are reasonable when it comes to setting bail for the accused. Please don't EVER consider yourself a "progressive" or one who cares about the poor, Brendan! It's the "good ol' boys" from the legal field (Kessler, Chisholm, McCann, etc.) who don't give a rat's patootie about making justice fair for everyone. And please spare this crap about "corruption"! Louisiana is in the SOUTH, where corruption is normal! Does any of this happen in Minnesota, Iowa, or the Dakotas, where bail bonds are legal? I rest my case.

Those big bad bail bondsman collecting fees and making profit from using their money to get people out of jail! Oyvey! The courts are profiting instead... like the court fees they keep and give back the change so nice of them!... Not only are the monies payed to the court but when someone doesn't show then they spend more taxpayer money to send out the hounds.... hmmm so far exceeding the original 10%. Also, to write on an issue without factual data sounds just as good as when i give my opinion based on ignorance of an issue.

At face value this article should appeal only to the most naive readers. Anyone who reads critically and questions the absurd categorical assumptions of the author will be amused at best. It is one of the most absurd articles I have read in years. It it patently ridiculous of the author to paint criminal suspects as "victims of the system" when offered the chance to post bail. The entire point of bail is to attempt to coerce a defendant to comply with the rules of civil behavior and due process when, absent of that coercion, they would otherwise not. Bail bondsmen are offering you a service for which you are not bound to accept. It's an at will contractual agreement. That's it. The only persons being coerced in this entire line of reason is naive readers who are evangelically cheer-leading ANY far-left fringe absurdity being spewed forth by paranoid nutbags like this author.