This is what a for-profit justice system looks like

“We have your son here in handcuffs, and he’s going to jail unless you can bring me the money.”

GCREDIT: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
GCREDIT: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Ronald Egana was at work the first time the bounty hunters came for him.

The hired guns handcuffed Egana and brought him not to jail but to a bail bonds office, where they forced him to call his disabled mother to ask for money in exchange for his release, according to a lawsuit filed Friday by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The lawsuit alleges abuse and conspiracy by several bail bonds agents in Louisiana. But the attorneys say their allegations are just scratching the surface of a powerful industry that simply shouldn’t exist.

Egana’s mother and a friend had originally agreed to pay Blair’s Bail Bonds a premium of $3,275 in exchange for the company to post bail to get Egana out of jail. But things quickly spiraled out of control when Egana could not keep up with the payments to Blair’s.

After the bounty hunters called her, Egana’s mother, Samantha, said she brought the $800 they had demanded to Blair’s office, where her son was being held in handcuffs. But when she arrived, the lawsuit says, they threatened to send him back to jail unless his mother came up with an additional $1,500. Once she returned with $1,500, they released him.

The Eganas said this scene repeated over and over again. The complaint charges that the company made Egana wear — and pay for — an illegal ankle monitor, which allowed bounty hunters to find, harass, and kidnap him to force his family to come up with more and more more money.

At one point, the lawsuit says, a bounty hunter intercepted Egana on his way to a court appearance and dragged him out of the courthouse and across the street to Blair’s. “We have your son here in handcuffs, and he’s going to jail unless you can bring me the money,” he allegedly told Egana’s mother on the phone.

After this had happened a few times, his mother realized they had paid the bail bondsman $6,000, double the original amount they had agreed to pay. At that point, she had spent her rent money, drained her savings, and borrowed thousands of dollars.

A cudgel against the poor

This predatory cycle started in a courtroom, when a judge set Egana’s bail at $50,000, beyond what he could afford. It’s been revealed in courthouses across the country that judges frequently ignore an individual’s ability to pay before setting bail amounts. That decision condemns impoverished families — and by extension, entire communities — to perpetual debt and incarceration, research has shown.

“Those who can afford to pay the fines or costs never suffer under this system. It’s only the poor who get caught,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director of SPLC.

A Vera Institute report found that 97 percent of New Orleanians who were able to post bail in criminal court had to turn to a bail bonds agent to put up the money. Nearly 5,000 people paid $4.7 million in non-refundable premiums to bail bond companies in 2015. Those who couldn’t afford to pay the bail bondsmen simply sat in jail until trial.

It’s only the poor who get caught.

The bond company eventually sent Egana back to jail. A judge then released him on a $30 signed promise that he would return for a court appearance. That was a sign that the ordeal he and his family endured had nothing to do with public safety, Brooke said.

“The court ultimately decided there was no need for bail at all,” he said. “If they had decided that on the first instance, then his family wouldn’t have been deprived of the $6,000 that they had taken from them by the company, and Ronald wouldn’t have been arrested multiple times, even on the day after Christmas in front of his family.”

SPLC argues that the extreme tactics the Eganas described are an inevitable consequence of a privatized criminal justice system. The injection of a profit motive into an enormously powerful system “creates the opportunity for bad actors to thrive,” Brooke said. “When we give them the ability to make decisions like whether or not someone should be sent to jail, that creates the perverse power that they have over these individuals’ lives.”

The bail bondsmen seem to agree the lawsuit is not just targeting specific bad practices, but is taking aim at the concept of money bail itself. “If you are in the bail bonds industry and you think this lawsuit is only about one bail agent in New Orleans or even about New Orleans you are gravely mistaken,” New Orleans bail bonds agent Matt Dennis, who owns one of the companies named in the lawsuit, wrote on Facebook.

Dennis and the other defendants have been vigorously lobbying to preserve bail in Louisiana. In the past year, the existential threat to the national bail industry has intensified. A federal judge in Texas recently determined that a money bail system that does not take into account an individual’s ability to pay violates the constitution. Dozens of cities and towns are facing lawsuits challenging the legality of bail. Many of them have agreed to reform or dismantle their systems. Even sheriffs and prosecutors have publicly denounced money bail.

“When most of the people in my jail are there because they can’t afford to bond out, and when those people are disproportionately black and Hispanic, that’s not a rational system,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez testified in the Texas hearing.

Profit and power

The preservation of bail in the criminal justice system has fallen largely to the private industry that has sprung up around it. Bail bonds agents who put up the money in court have fought reform, but they are backed by much larger insurance companies that underwrite the bonds. One such company, Bankers Insurance, is a defendant in the SPLC lawsuit. Bankers is one of the largest insurers in the country.

“The insurance industry is really what drives the bail industry in a lot of ways,” Brooke said. “They’re the ones who are financing it all.”

According to SPLC, the Eganas were told by bail agents that the insurance company was dictating the fees and collection tactics as a standard practice. The attorneys plan to determine how widespread this is through the discovery process.

Similar complaints of kidnapping, extortion, and fraud have plagued bail bonds companies elsewhere in the country.

A report by the ACLU and Color of Change found that there were just a handful of insurance corporations behind the omnipresent bail bonds storefronts in every town. These national and global entities have the resources to lobby governments to minimize their risks and give themselves more power over the poor.

“These private businesses have effectively become decision-makers for whether millions of people can walk free,” the report noted. “Opaque corporate judgments of who to accept, who to ignore, and what to require can shield discriminatory practices and abuse.”

These few beneficiaries have helped entrench the practice of jailing people unless they pay up. The United States is just one of two countries in the world with a money bail system — the other is the Philippines. In some other nations, selling bail bonds is itself a criminal offense.

Bail bonds are a multi-billion dollar business for some, but the industry inflicts long-term economic damage on the people caught in its web. It throws poor, predominantly black families into a constant state of emergency, in which they must divert funds that might otherwise go to a down payment on a house or tuition. Like Egana’s mother, who fell behind on bill payments, more than two-thirds of survey respondents in New Orleans told the Vera Institute that “criminal justice costs — both bail and conviction fines and fees — had a major impact on the financial stability of their families.”

“The criminal justice system is much more expensive the poorer you are,” Brooke said.