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In Defense of Bounty Hunting

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 11, 2011 10:06 AM

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Bounty hunters and bail bondsmen have a bad rap: The American Bar Association calls their line of work "tawdry," and Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun declared it "odorous." But bounty hunters have an unlikely ally: Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University, who argues in The Wilson Quarterly that bounty hunters are "unsung" heroes of an overbooked justice system.


Dog the Bounty Hunter, on A&E.

Bail and bounty hunters have a long history. In medieval England, suspected criminals often had to stew for months until a traveling judge arrived to conduct a trial; in the meantime, the court would release the defendant to a "surety," often a friend or brother, who would guarantee that he would show up in court. "If the accused failed to show," Tabarrok explains, "the surety would take his place and be judged as if he were the offender." Sureties were, unsurprisingly, given broad powers to chase down their charges; today's bounty hunters have inherited them (they can legally break into the houses of their targets, search their property without probable cause, and pursue them across state lines).

Even with those powers, however, the risk of being a surety was too great - and so "personal surety" was replaced by "commercial surety," the system used in most American states, including Massachusetts. Under this system, a suspect is released to wait for his trial in exchange for a sum of money, which is returned to him when he shows up on the appointed date. If he doesn't have the money himself, he can hire a bail bondsman to post bail, in exchange for an up-front fee, usually around 10%. If a bondsman puts up $6,000 bail and you show up, he keeps your $600. If you skip town, however, he could be out $6,000, and so he'll send a bounty hunter after you. Usually, he has three to six months to find you before the state annexes the bond. This all adds up to big business: one out of four defendants don't show.

Bounty hunters have a rough-and-tumble image - think of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, or, more recently, of A&E's television show Dog the Bounty Hunter. Yet bail bond firms, Tabarrok writes, "are often small, family-run businesses - the wife writes the bonds and the husband, the 'bounty hunter,' searches for clients who fail to show up in court." Successful bounty hunters have a combination of "persistence and politeness": their targets are, after all, their customers, and they track their charges down by working with friends and family. People who won't talk to police will often talk to bounty hunters, and bounty hunters who are easy to work with get repeat business from defendants. As one defendant-cum-customer puts it, “My family and I have been coming to Frank’s Bail Bonds for three generations.”

The system works, but there are lots of good reasons to dislike it. For one thing, it's regressive, penalizing poorer defendants; for another, it seems illogical. The goal of the bail bondsman is, after all, to make easy money by posting bail for poor-but-trustworthy defendants. Why can't the state cut out the middleman, figure out who's trustworthy on its own, and then let those defendants go on their own recognizance?

These are sensible objections, and over the last fifty years most states have experimented with solutions. In many places a state agency now reviews each defendant, assigning him a score which predicts how likely he is to skip bail; those defendants who have stable home and work lives are released, while the rest flow into the commercial bail system. Four states (Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin) have abolished commercial bail altogether; in those states, the only people with the power to chase fugitives are the (already very busy) police. Essentially, the government acts like a bail bond firm: it figures out whom to trust, and then promises to track down the defendants it's wrong about.

These schemes work - but, Tabarrok writes, they don't work as well as good old-fashioned bounty hunting. Defendants skip bail as much as 28 percent less when there are bail bondsmen and bounty hunters in place, essentially because bounty hunters are solely focused on finding them. The bottom line is that bail bond firms are more motivated than the state to figure out who's trustworthy, and to hunt down those who aren't.

If commercial bail works, then why is it so often opposed? The answer, one suspects, is that it really is "tawdry." It's hard to reconcile the ideals of justice with the business of money making, and painful to watch defendants, who are innocent until proven guilty, sign incomprehensible contracts with potentially predatory bail bond firms. At the border of justice and commerce, it's a difficult balancing act.

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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