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In New Jersey, Sweeping Reforms Deliver Existential Threat To Bail Bonds Industry


Look inside any jail in the country and chances are most of the people there are waiting for trial. Often because it's they can't afford to make bail. Well, now one state has replaced cash bail with a new system. Joel Rose of our Planet Money podcast takes a look.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Six months ago, New Jersey basically stopped using cash bail. That's a pretty big change. One way to measure how big is to look at the impact on the state's bail industry, guys like Kirk Shaw, a third-generation bail bondsman. I met him outside his office in Hackensack, across the street from the Bergen County Jail.

KIRK SHAW: That used to be a bail bond office over there. That's out of business. They were the largest company in the state.

ROSE: And did these guys close up recently? When did they close?

SHAW: Like, two weeks ago. It's been rough.

ROSE: Under the old system, if you commit a crime the judge might set bail at $10,000. And if you can't afford to pay the full amount, that's where the bail bondsman comes in. He's basically a short-term loan officer who specializes in one kind of loan. He puts up the bail money and you get out of jail. But you're going to need a guarantee from your family and friends. And the bail bondsman charges a fee, usually about 10 percent. Think of it as interest on your loan. Shaw says there were some advantages to that system.

SHAW: The old system, you'd have skin in the game. If they came to us their family would sign. They would be responsible to make sure this person go - went to court.

ROSE: But except for the bail industry, nobody really liked the old system. For one thing, defendants who can't afford bail can be stuck in jail for a long time. Roseanne Scotti is with the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, which found that 40 percent of the state's jail population was locked up solely because they couldn't make bail.

ROSEANNE SCOTTI: It seemed grossly unfair because while people are sitting in there in jail for months and sometimes years, you know, they're losing jobs, they're losing family, losing housing.

ROSE: And it wasn't just do-gooders who had a problem with cash bail. Prosecutors in New Jersey didn't like the old system either, though for totally different reasons. Elie Honig is with the state attorney general's office.

ELIE HONIG: Everyone who got money bailed, no matter how dangerous. If they could post the money, they could walk out. When you're looking at the leader of a mafia family, a large drug trafficking organization - you could have a kingpin, somebody who's dangerous, somebody you've charged with murders. Now, those folks can come up with money.

ROSE: New Jersey isn't the first state to reform its bail system, but the solution it's trying is pretty aggressive. New Jersey basically replaced the old cash bail system with a new one based entirely on data and risk. As of January, if you commit a crime, the state feeds a bunch of data about you into a risk assessment tool - things like your age, your criminal history - and the tool generates a score based on how likely you are to flee or harm the community.

If you get a high score, you can be detained until trial. But if you get a low score, the judge is encouraged to send you home, possibly with some monitoring by the courts. As you might expect, bail bondsmen are not impressed with the new system. Kirk Shaw says people are getting out of jail way too easily.

SHAW: Right now there's no accountability. Nobody's showing up in court. They're laughing at New Jersey. It's a joke.

ROSE: The state hasn't released any numbers yet on how many people are showing up for court. But overall, crime in New Jersey is actually down for the year. And Roseanne Scotti at the Drug Policy Alliance says there's another important statistic that's down, too - how many people are sitting in jail waiting for trial because they can't afford bail.

SCOTTI: When we got the first statistics that showed that the jail population had been reduced by almost 30 percent, I cried.

ROSE: Six months into New Jersey's experiment, the judge overseeing the transition says things are going exceedingly well. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.