Bounty Hunters

by on October 14, 2003 at 8:14 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

The “bounty hunter” conference was fascinating. To be precise, I was invited to speak before the California Bail Agents Association which includes bail bond agents who write the bonds, surety/insurance companies who back the bonds as well as bail enforcement agents (aka bounty hunters) who recapture fugitives.

The bounty hunters were generally big guys but not so that you would notice on the street – these were not your Gold’s Gym type. A bounty hunter can always buy muscle but what they really need is smarts. A successful bounty hunter avoids excessive confrontation because every pickup is a lawsuit waiting to happen. One bounty hunter told me a big part of his success has been unfailing politeness.

Another key element is getting family members to cosign the bond – even hardened criminals don’t want to see Momma’s house taken should they fail to appear at trial.

It’s no coincidence that bail agents typically have their annual convention in Reno or Las Vegas but these are poker players not mindless feeders of the slot machine. (The distinction between these forms of gambling strikes me as important but to my knowledge has not been taken up by economists.)

Many of the “bondsmen”, perhaps even a majority, are women. Bondsmen must develop intuition and judgment about who is a flight risk and women may be particularly good at this. Also, although the defendant’s are usually men, its often their wives, girlfriends and mothers who bail them out and dealing empathetically with these women is a big part of the art – alas, repeat business is not uncommon.

As with other insurance industries, you can make a lot of money quickly by writing bail but trouble comes when your charges skip and their bail becomes forfeit. At least that is what is supposed to happen but – and I am surprised to be saying this – lax regulators and high-price lawyers can open a window of opportunity that makes bad bail writing potentially profitable. The problems this creates for the honest players in the industry was a big topic at the conference. I was impressed, however, that there was also a frank discussion about how to distinguish rules meant to weed out the fraudulent from anti-competitive rules. This is a topic I need to think more about.

I was asked to speak at the CBAA because of my paper on bounty hunters with Eric Helland (forthcoming in the Journal of Law and Economics). Here are some key facts and findings:

A whopping one-quarter of all felony defendants fail to appear at trial. Of these some thirty percent can’t be found after a year.

The police are overrun with unserved arrest warrants for failure to appear and typically devote little time to the task.

As a result, FTA appear rates are some 28% lower for those released on commercial bail compared to those released on their own recognizance.

When a defendant does FTA he is about 50% more likely to be caught and is caught much sooner if a bounty hunter is on his trail compared to if only the police are involved. (Both of these effects are after controlling for other relevant factors, of course).

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