Brennan Aberle sees a lot of tough stuff over the course of his workday.
Working on behalf of indigent clients for the Guilford County Public Defender’s office, the 31-year old attorney averages around 200 clients at any given time, most facing mid-level felonies. Working with people facing jail time and too poor to pay for their own defense, there are a lot of casual tragedies to be observed.
“One of the most heartbreaking things I deal with, though, is when I have to go to a client and say, ‘I think you have a case, but realistically it could take months before the case is heard,’” Aberle said in an interview this week. “Because I know a lot of them will plead guilty just because they can’t afford to stay in jail that long – and they can’t afford bail.”
In the United States, those who are arrested are presumed innocent until proven guilty. In North Carolina, the law leans toward  allowing those not deemed a danger to the public or a flight risk to be released without having to post money to assure they will appear to face charges.
But law enforcement officials, bail professionals and attorneys across the state say it has become common for courts and magistrates to set bail for even minor charges regardless of whether the accused is shown to be dangerous or likely to flee.
Those with the money to pay their own bail can return to their lives, families and jobs as they await their day in court. Or they can turn to the for-profit bail bond industry, which will allow them to pay a fraction (no more than 15 percent) of the total bail, which is guaranteed by the bond company. Facing a $1,000 bail, a defendant could go home for no more than $150 to a bondsman.
But for many of the poorest North Carolinians, who can afford neither bail or a bondsman, a jail stay can lead to the loss of their jobs, their homes or even their children.
Ironically, those facing lesser charges and smaller bails may benefit the least from the bail bond industry.
“I’ve seen defendants ask to have their bail increased,” said Chuck Johnson, head of Wake County’s pretrial program, which is run by the nonprofit, ReEntry Incorporated. “Because if their bail is $500, they can’t get a bondsman to come down to the jail for fifteen percent of that. It’s not worth it to them for less than $150.”
Over his 28 years working with Wake County defendants, Johnson said he’s come to see a deep and disturbing irony in the way the for-profit bail bond system operates.
“People who are successful criminals and gang members tend to have access to money to pay their bail or to pay a bail bondsmen and get out,” Johnson said.
For larger bails, on which bondsmen stand to make more money, they’ll often lower their percentage or offer no-money-down deals in order to compete with other bondsmen for the high-dollar customer. The result: higher costs for those accused of lesser crimes or who are deemed to be less risky.
“If someone is arrested for stealing food, they’re a lot less likely to have access to that money,” Johnson said. “They also can’t afford to wait 30 days. So they get into these deals with bondsmen that can mean they go into debt and have payment plans.”
Just 22 of the state’s 100 counties have pre-trial release services like Johnson’s – programs that work with the courts to allow the release of first time defendants, those facing less serious charges and those deemed less likely to be violent or to flee without a money bond. The programs are mostly run by nonprofits with funding from the individual counties.
It’s worth noting, Johnson said, that the state’s largest counties – including Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford and Durham – are among those willing to invest in pre-trial programs because they offer a huge savings over housing poor defendants in often over-crowded county jails until trial. Law enforcement officials in those counties have praised the programs and opposed efforts by the bail bond industry  to pass laws that would limit or eliminate them.
North Carolina’s bail bond industry has faced a number of recent high-profile embarrassments.
- An ongoing case in which former Wake County clerks were convicted of defrauding the county of approximately $1.5 million. Kelvin Ballentine testified he was paid by three bondsmen to falsify records in more than 300 cases in court computers from 2008 to 2012. He made it appear the bond companies had paid bonds for defendants who did not appear in court when they had not. The money, from forfeited bonds, would ultimately have gone to the Wake County Public School System. Bond surety companies are now in court trying to avoid paying the forfeited bonds.
- Another case of bail agent fraud in Guilford County last year that cost the county more than $200,000. One instance, involving two bail agents, cost the county more than $107,000 by itself.
- More than 80 people associated with the bail industry in North Carolina who are known to have been convicted of, or who are currently under indictment for, serious crimes. Charges range from bail forfeiture, unlicensed bail bonding work, sex with customers and manslaughter. In one case in Guilford County, a bail agent faces charges for allegedly filing a fraudulent death certificate for a man who skipped bail while facing drug dealing charges.
Critics of the industry – including its customers, their lawyers and top law enforcement officials throughout the state – say that it is both horribly broken and so deeply entrenched in North Carolina politics that improvements are unlikely.
Prominent current state lawmakers are themselves bail bond professionals. Influential former state lawmakers lobby their friends in the legislature on the industry’s behalf. Those who are not directly involved in the industry are the beneficiaries of more than $300,000 in political contributions to state lawmakers between 2002 and 2016. During that period, the North Carolina Bail Agents Association took credit for helping to pass 60 laws “helping N.C. bondsmen make and save more money and protect their livelihood.”
In the coming weeks and months, Policy Watch will publish a series of stories exploring the bail industry in North Carolina – its influence, impact and costs to the state and its people. We’ll talk with bail bondsmen, attorneys and law enforcement officials as well as those who have dealt with the industry at some of the most vulnerable moments in their lives.
If you would like to share your experiences with the bail bond industry with Policy Watch as these stories unfold, please contact investigative reporter Joe Killian at Joe@ncpolicywatch.com .