When Freedom Isn’t Free

Source: Alysia Santo, Washington Monthly, March/April/May 2015

ALEC and the bail bond industry have a new plan to empty prisons—for a price…. Bail is an essential lubricant of American justice, asserted Nicholas Wachinski, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, a trade group for insurance companies that underwrite bail bonds. But now bail agents are under siege by so-called reformers, who argue that the traditional bail system forces poor defendants to choose between paying fees they can’t afford and sitting in jail until they go to trial. A growing number of states—New Jersey, Colorado, Virginia, Delaware, West Virginia, Hawaii, and others—are limiting the use of bail for defendants who don’t pose a threat, or replacing for-profit bail with government supervision. Of course, Wachinski said, the bail bond industry will continue its tireless lobbying to protect its lucrative franchise, but he was there with another message: Innovation! New products! New markets! “A brave new world!” Why should bail bonds be only for defendants who are awaiting trial? How about bail bonds for a whole new class of customers: people who have already been convicted…. Mississippi has been a kind of laboratory for bail industry experiments. The state is the country’s poorest and has the third-highest per-capita incarceration rate. The Mississippi Bail Agents Association exercises strong legislative influence, boasting on its website that “[s]ince 1992, there have only been two years in which the MBAA did not succeed at making changes to the state bail statutes.” The bail industry has given more in campaign contributions per capita to state politicians in Mississippi than anywhere else. Versions of post-conviction bail legislation have also passed in South Dakota and Michigan, a victory celebrated by bail agents but not yet put into widespread practice….