A bail bondsman in the state for nearly 30 years, Roberson hates that his profession has developed such a bad reputation, but he acknowledges that much of it is deserved.
“I came into doing this in 1988,” Roberson said in an interview this week. “Since then we’ve just got too many people in the business that shouldn’t be there – these big insurance companies have come in and they’ve brought in all these agents who don’t have their own money on the line and will just do anything.”
Roberson runs Jimmy’s Bail Bonding in Rutherfordton, a small family business that also includes his wife and son-in-law. They service Rutherford, Cleveland and Polk counties and pride themselves on doing business the right way – offering a way out of jail for those who are arrested but who are not dangerous or a flight risk. Rutherford said he has his own money on the line if someone should skip bail and he has to pay a bond forfeiture – not the backing of large surety companies that can go to court in an attempt not to pay, as is happening now in Wake County.
His business allows people to go to work and take care of their families while awaiting their day in court, Roberson said – which is the system set up by state statute.
But the influx of poorly trained, cut-rate, volume-driven bail agents who have come into the business in the last few decades have given the industry a black eye – something he and his family have unfortunately seen up-close and personal.
“We had a guy who rented an office right beside us and was was operating a bail bonds business,” Roberson said. “He was dealing drugs, trading sex for bonds, drugs for bonds – you name it. It took ten months before it was taken care of and he went to jail.”
There has, indeed, been a dramatic increase in licensed bail agents in North Carolina since Roberson got into the business.
According to the North Carolina Department of Insurance, there were 479 people in the state with at least one type of bail agent license in 1986. Last year, that number was 1,746.
That’s an increase of 265 percent in a state whose total population increased only 63 percent over the same period.
“You just can’t have that many people come in and they’re doing it the right way,” Roberson said. “Once there’s that much money in it, you know there’s going to be a problem. There needs to be higher standards and you need to sort out the riffraff.”
Tony Williams agrees.
A bail bondsman with Piedmont Bonding Services in Mocksville, Williams started the nonprofit Surety Agents for North Carolina earlier this year. The group, which Williams says has about 120 members, is to promote ethical bail bonding, proper training and oversight in the industry and reform of the problems that have come to define the industry in the public mind.
“I think we’re seen as parasites, as predators,” Williams said in an interview this week. “And some of them are – but most of us are not that person. If we do our jobs right, what we do is a significant contribution to the criminal justice system. We may be seen as the red-headed stepchild of the criminal justice system, but we’re really a part of it.”
In America, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, Williams said. And in North Carolina, the law technically 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 in reality, it’s become common for courts and magistrates to set bail for even minor offenses.
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 bondsman or the surety company backing him. Facing a $1,000 bail, a defendant could go home by paying as little as $150 to a bondsman.
The system works against indigent defendants who can’t afford a bail bond, Williams admits and when bail is set at as little as $500 for relatively minor offenses or those who are not a danger, it isn’t doing them any favors, he said. It’s difficult to get most bail bondsmen interested in even fifteen percent of such a small amount of money.
But there’s another large problem, Williams said – the rise of bond companies offering cut rate bail bonding for as little as three percent or with no money down.
“The ‘three percent’ phenomenon has come in the last decade and has probably had the most destructive thing since it began,” Williams said. “It undermines the entire criminal justice system. It undermines the intent of the court. Service is no longer a value – it’s all about who can do it the cheapest. It makes it all about the money.”
It was a long established practice to charge the full 15 percent allowed on smaller bonds, Williams and other bondsmen said, and to negotiate the percentage down a bit for larger bonds – say, $10,000 or more. Bondsmen did so to compete for larger bonds.
But with the influx of agents and surety insurance companies backing them, Williams said, too many began offering unrealistically low rates for even minor bails. This often means locking poor people into payment plans with which they may not be able to keep up.
“They’ll do cut-rate bonds, no-money-down, they’ll get people into these bad payment plans they know they can’t keep up with,” Roberson said. “They wait a few weeks and when they miss a payment they keep their money and send them back to jail. That’s legal but it’s not really kosher. It makes all of us look bad.”
“They’ll get you out for almost nothing and give you a payment plan,” Williams said. “And when people are trying to get out, they’ll sign almost anything. They set them up to fail and that’s just taking advantage of people. It’s just wrong. It undermines everything we do and we stand firmly against that.”
Roberson and Williams both said they welcome legislative solutions to these problems, though, with more than $350,000 in political contributions from the bail industry to state lawmakers from 2002 to 2016, few new laws related to the industry appear to be aimed at reining in excesses.
But the industry also needs to begin policing itself better, many bondsmen are now saying. That means regulating both bondsmen and the surety companies paying when they default, Williams and Roberson said, and creating an expectation that bondsmen will be a part of the community rather than simply preying on its most vulnerable.
“I think there are a great number of bail bondsmen out there who don’t commit that malfeasance,” Williams said. “We have no voice right now. We need to have a voice and our communities know who we are and what we do. That starts with us doing better and holding ourselves and each other to a higher standard.”
In the coming weeks and months, Policy Watch will continue its 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.