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Low-Income Bay Area Families Must Wait in Jail or Suffer Financial Devastation from Exploitative For-Profit Bail Industry

Tuesday, August 2, 2022
Lucia Mattox

New report supports movement to end cash bail in San Francisco Bay Area and across the U.S.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A new report released today by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) highlights how bail bond companies, acting with little regulatory oversight, saddle low-income and low-wealth families with unmanageable debt burdens that have devastating short- and long-term financial consequences, particularly for Black and Latino families.

CRL partnered with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF) to conduct interviews with San Francisco Bay Area residents who obtained a surety, otherwise known as a bail bond, for themselves or served as a cosigner for a justice-involved individual in order to be released while awaiting trial. A bail bond has become increasingly necessary amidst high bail amounts associated with misdemeanor and low-level felony charges. The report, “Debt Under Duress: The Economic Impacts of Bail Bonds on San Francisco Bay Area Residents,” supports the need for an overhaul of the bail bond industry used by justice-involved people to secure pretrial freedom.

For the individuals interviewed, debt and financial abuse from a bail bond company was the only way out of the nightmare of pretrial detention that may last for months or more, but is devastating even if for a day. In San Francisco, only 43% of cases are resolved in less than one year. CalMatters found more than 1300 Californians have been waiting more than three years in county jails without being convicted or sentenced. Bail bond borrowers must pay 10% of the total bail amount, with no refund even if they appear in court. The payment contracts often have confusing terms that are very difficult to meet. This can mean thousands of dollars in debt and devastation for low-income families who are compelled to take this action.

“It’s a horrific choice: jail for an undetermined length of time for folks who have not been convicted, versus a non-refundable tax on the poor and the burden of devastating debt for those who can only secure pretrial release by engaging a bail bond company,” said Lucia Mattox, director of western states outreach and senior policy manager at CRL. “Bail bonds result in wealth extraction from low-income, Black and Latino communities and exploit criminal courts’ use of cash bail to siphon millions of dollars from these communities, disrupting financial stability and asset-building opportunities.”

The report paints the picture of how pretrial detention has destabilizing effects on individuals and their families. Under pressure to secure pretrial freedom, the only choice often seems to be engagement with bail bond companies whose practices often send families into a vortex of financial woes. One Air Force veteran, for example, told interviewers he took four payday loans to get out on bail. In order to repay them, he reported sacrifices such as forgoing seeing his young son and girlfriend to save gas money. (See his full story on page 19.)

Median bail amounts in California are $50,000, five times higher than the rest of the nation. Families with means can avoid the forced choice between jail and deep financial loss by paying the full bail amount directly to a court. They have no involvement with a bail bond company and remain free while awaiting trial. The funds are returned in full if the person shows up for all trial hearings and meets other requirements. The report concludes that an end to harmful cash bail and pretrial detention would relieve low-income and disproportionately impacted families of color of this unjust burden.

“The bail bonds industry is awash in misinformation and abuse, though it often goes overlooked. CRL's newest report helps shine a spotlight on the industry by bringing to life the stories of bail bonds consumers and the financial burdens they experience,” said Rio Scharf, an equal justice works fellow at LCCRSF. “The data gathered by CRL and presented in this report shows how the industry promotes inequality and undermines peoples' financial stability. The findings lead to one clear conclusion: California should eliminate the for-profit bail industry and eradicate harmful pretrial detention practices.”

Responses from the participants interviewed describe negative experiences with the industry, including complex and confusing contracts with bail bond companies, often signed under duress and with high-pressure tactics; emotional and mental health stressors; unmanageable debt burdens and financial instability, and harassment, threats, and disclosure of private information.

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Press Contact: carol.parish@responsiblelending.org