Freakonomics Radio: The Economics of Bounty Hunting
What are the chances that Dominique Strauss-Kahn will jump his very large bail? Very slim. But if that somehow were to happen, he’d have to worry about more than just the police; he’d also have a bounty hunter on his tail.
Our new Freakonomics Radio podcast, called “To Catch a Fugitive,” explores the economics of bounty hunting. (you can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player at the top, or read the transcript here) It features a pair of great guests.
The first is Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University who is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and blogs at Marginal Revolution. Here is the Journal of Law and Economics paper that inspired the episode, “The Fugitive: Evidence on Public Versus Private Law Enforcement From Bail Jumping,” which Tabarrok co-authored with Eric Helland. And here is a related article that Tabarrok published in The Wilson Quarterly.
The second guest is Bob Burton, a longtime bounty hunter who literally wrote
the book on the subject, called Bounty Hunter. As you will hear in the podcast, he is a colorful guy, but in most ways the polar opposite of Dog the Bounty Hunter.
A few excerpts from the podcast:
TABARROK: Yeah, I was shocked when I first saw this data. Twenty-five percent of defendants, felony defendants simply fail to show up on the day of their trial. That’s a huge number. I was flabbergasted. So this means that the judge’s time is wasted, the lawyer’s time is wasted, the prosecutor’s time is wasted; the police, they have to go out and try and recapture this guy. It’s a big cost to the criminal justice system. And moreover, justice delayed is justice denied. If people can repeatedly flaunt the justice system by failing to show up, and extend the time, which means that witnesses become harder to find, the more time it takes to get to a trial, evidence gets lost, paperwork gets lost, things get shuffled around, witnesses move, they disappear, whatever. This really is a cost to the legal system.
TABARROK: And we thought it would be interesting to see whether people who are released on commercial bail, whether they’re more likely to show up, and if they flee, are they more likely to be recaptured? Because if you’re out on commercial bail and you flee, it’s the bail bondsman who’s out the money. The bail bondsman has put up your $5,000 bail, and if you don’t show up, he loses the $5,000. So, this is a classic case of incentives. Do incentives work? Do the bail bondsmen have the right incentives to go after these guys with the bounty hunters? That’s where the bounty hunters come in and bring them back to justice.
DUBNER: So the fugitives have an incentive to not run away. But if they do, the bounty hunters really have an incentive. Unlike a police officer, who’s on salary, a bounty hunter only gets paid if he brings the fugitive in. And the data prove it: Tabarrok found that bounty hunters are fifty percent more likely than police to get their man.
DUBNER: Wow, so if I’m a taxpayer, which I happen to be, then I have to be thinking wow, we’ve got a system of law and order, we try to find the bad guys, we give them their day in court, but while they’re waiting for that day in court, they’re often out on bail, free to roam around. And then if I as a taxpayer want to make sure that my dollars are well spent and that the bad guys are being brought back in for trial, I like the private industry take on this more than the government take on this a lot, don’t I?
TABARROK: Yeah, you really do because not only do the bail bondsmen work at no tax payer expense, there’s a little bit of a justice involved in that the guys who flee, they’re paying their own pursuers. I kind of like that. It’s from these defenders themselves that the money comes for the bounty hunters to go after them. And it’s even a little bit better than that because the bounty hunters, they’re good, but they don’t always get their man. You know, sometimes the guy flees town and the bounty hunters, the bail bondsmen, they usually have about ninety to a hundred and eighty days. So, the judge says if this guy, you’ve put up the bounty hunter has put up $5,000 of bail, and the judge says this guy hasn’t showed up, tells the bail bondsman you’ve got 90 to a 180, it varies by state, to bring this guy to justice. If you don’t bring him to justice in that period of time, that bail is forfeit. So when that bail is forfeit that actually goes to the taxpayer. So the taxpayer can actually make some money. And this is not a huge chunk of change, but it’s millions of dollars in different states and at the federal level. Forfeit bonds actually go to a crime victim fund. So that’s kind of a nice, also a nice piece of justice to this I think.
BURTON: The police have a fifty-fifty love hate relationship with us because we are doing what they do. We get paid more for one arrest than they might make all week. We’re rivals with the detective division of that man’s area. For instance, every time we pop someone in New York City, the NYPD’s detective division, on one hand — Okay one less case, but on the other hand, Why the hell did those bounty hunters get to them before we did?
And, perhaps my favorite:
BURTON: The bottom line is we look for the fugitive and the Judas. Everybody has a Judas in their life. An ex-girlfriend might betray him because he ran off with someone else, a rival crack dealer will betray him because he wants that guy out of the system because he’s competition. There’s always someone that will betray you for love, out of caring.
Hope you enjoy. As always, let us know your thoughts.