Freakonomics Radio: The Economics of Bounty Hunting

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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.

Alex Tabarrok

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.

Bounty hunter Bob Burton catches a runaway.

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.


Nothing about the suspension of civil rights? Lack of Miranda, lack of warrants, etc. Can you imagine the horror the French will feel if DSK is hunted down by a bounty hunter!?!


But wait, KenC -- they have ALREADY had their Miranda rights read. They ALREADY have forfeited the right to warrants. "Civil Rights" is a broad category. You give some of them up once you've committed a crime. Jumping bail is a crime on top of another crime. They are "in the system" - they made a promise to return to be prosecuted/tried for their crimes. So most of the standard prior-to-arrest provisions no longer apply. Once you've been in front of the judge and a date is set for court, if you run, you have fewer rights. That's the reason bounty hunters can do this. Now, I'm not so sure they can wear badges like Dog does... but still, it's all part of the crime~enforcement game. And most citizens have no freaking clue what that game is about.

We want justice. Then we get mad if someone is "mean" to someone who broke the law. Never mind the bail jumper/law breaker may have ripped a woman to pieces and deposited her in dumpsters all over town. (Happened in Hawaii and the ACLU got their undies in a twist because he was kept in chains in his cell. They chained him because he maimed and beat everyone who came in to feed him or tend to him. That included a priest...) Never mind it may have been a child that was harmed by the creep. Never mind that some bail jumpers go out and commit horrific crimes while on the run... You don't have to be "low risk" to get bail. You just have to have a good lawyer.

Yes, people have the right of innocence before being proven guilty. And we have provisions for that in our system. But there are some serious dirtbags out there that few have ever encountered unless they are on the law-enforcement end of the game. Spend a week on ride-alongs with some cops. Go volunteer in a prison for a week. Sit in on psych reviews of serial killers. It will change how you view the system. I'm glad the bounty hunters are there to support the detectives. The more they can get off the street the better. (And if the guy is innocent, why did he jump bail?)

Food for thought.



I like this post and it brings up some excellent points. Though, I'd just like to point out that the justice system is not perfect. It's supposed to be an innocent until proven guilty system but we already judge people in the court of opinion and in many cases being that we have an adversarial system the incentives are usually to find a way to gain a conviction or plea deal rather than the truth.


I think we should encourage Strauss-Kahn to flee. The French reaction to bounty hunting would be priceless entertainment.

Eric M. Jones

The French have lots of little places where he would never be found. Whether he will flea or not will be the result of what punishment he would face. This has yet to be determined but I can't believe that DSK will NOT flea if the conditions are right--regardless of the bail money.

Or he will do what John Belushi did--fake his own death two weeks before he was to be arrested, then hide out with a fat bank account in a mansion overlooking Bahias de Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico. Ask me how I know....

Tony Suggs

U.S. "bounty hunters" have no authority to operate anywhere but in the U.S. So, if this man runs it will be up to the U.S. marshal service or FBI to aprehend him.

Now, the bondsman that posted the bail, can hire "bounty hunters" to locate him but they would have no authority or legal right to "arrest" him in a foreign country.

Finally, to Ken C, Miranda warnings are only given during the intial arrest of the suspect. He had his reading of his rights already. Secondly, bail recovery agents are enforcing a private civil contract between the defendant and the bail agent. They don't need a "warrant" to take that person in custody and return him or her to jail or a court having jurisdiction of the case.

So there is no violation of any civil rights of someone that has skipped out on their bail bond contract.

Ian M

I wonder how much Boba Fett was paid?


As always, a fascinating and entertaining podcast. Glad I'm one of the million who downloaded this month. Interesting that the job requirements are more about research and phone skills than what I'd typically associate with bounty hunting.

Mike B

As always, Freakonomics is very narrowly focused on the tangible cause-effect, incentives, costs and results, but despite the allure of "bringin' 'em to justice" at half the cost, what about the alarming notion of non-professional, non-sworn "cowboys" (even if polite) tearing through the neighborhood? I'm not a big fan of outsourcing. There's a reason many activities should remain the strict province of the State, which bears responsibility for training personnel and paying damages when things go awry. OK, I have to admit my bias: my father was a Chicago PD detective, and I was happy to hear that my former state, Illinois, is one of the four that ban the practice. Which leads to another obvious question: If the Bounty system is so great why are the US and Philippines the only countries using it?


Even before bounty hunting became popular...Many years ago, I had a friend that was doing it. It was interested but had another job. I kinda' wished I had gotten into it even for just a little while.

B Glad

Bounty hunting is illegal in some states, although some person can be hired to track and locate an individual but not apprehend. The bondsman which has the surety bond can then go and apprehend the bond jumper which was FTA ( failure to appear ) True a warrant is not needed to either enter or search the residence but any attempt must be reported to the local police authories prior to attempting to apprehend.

Fantastic. I read the portion of the podcast listed as transcript. It is spot on about the bail industry.
I own and operate a bail bonding company and see this very thing in my State (City - San Jose - Bay Area).

All so often I receive a call from someone stating that they have a warrant. I gather some info and conduct a warrant search. I always ask the potential client why he/she believes they have a warrant. #1 answer - "I missed court about a year ago."

The harsh reality is that these persons missed court and law enforcement still has not bee able to catch them. Now the person is calling me to take care of the Warrant.

I post bail and 80% of the time the person complies and goes to each and every court appearance. About 19% of the time, I catch up to them, re-arrest them. 1% of the time I have some sort of cost involved with either paying the bound off outright, paying court cost only or hiring a bounty hunter or attorney to get some sort of relief on the case.

The bottom line is....Law enforcement is just that. They enforce the laws. But when it comes to catching fugitives, I know of only three types of persons that catch them with a greater success than local authorities: Bail Agents, Bounty Hunters and the U.S. Marshall's Service. Financially, the Federal Government has much more resources at there disposal - the drawback - cost the taxpayer a lot more money that what it costs local authorities. Financially, the Bail Agent and Bounty Hunter, if they don't succeed, the taxpayer makes money. Being a Bail Agent /Bounty Hunter is a "Thankless Job" (Judge Judy)

To comment on the Civil and or Due process of making an arrest of a fugitive...Financially the Bail Agent is responsible for the actions of the Bounty Hunter. That is why reputable and experienced Bounty Hunters are always preferred. The due process - Shoot - the guy missed court and the Contract Law and Surety Laws protect the Bail Agent and Bounty Hunter from have to go through the process all over again. Making an arrest of a "FUGITIVE" is akin to the original arrest. No new process is required. The obligation by the fugitive is absolute and can not be construed as a new offense. The rearrest is a matter of and condition of the contracts and the extension of any local, state or federal incarceration.

To address bounty hunting in other countries. Now, I am not going to pose myself as knowing international law. I am only going to be describing U.S. - Federal/State/Local Bounty Hunting Laws here....A licensed Bail Agent/Bounty Hunter (depending on the requirements for each State County or City) in the United States) is permitted to apprehend a bail fugitive any time, anywhere, even on the Sabbath. (The intent and spirit of the law as described by the U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Taylor v. Taintor) In the United States, I can not go to a foreign country, detain a fugitive and bring the fugitive back unlawfully. (Previously deported from the United States), however, I may arrest a Bail Fugitive and return him/her to the United States. BUT, I could be breaking the law in foreign country. So long as no U.S. laws are broken, I may return the fugitive to the United States. BUT again, if I am charged with kidnapping in France, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Egypt, etc... that is a different story. The U.S. Government may feel political pressure for the bounty hunters return to the foreign country for which the allegation of Kidnapping originated, but so long as the bounty hunter did not break any U.S> laws, I doubt the bounty hunter would get into serious trouble. He may be brought through the ringer for a time, but he is doing the duty of the Court by presenting the defendant in a timely manner in accordance to the bail laws that are permitted of him while operating in the United States. A very distinct and clear separation from a bounty hunter operating in a foreign country. But there is a lot to this topic that is not discussed with the public ; i.e. Coordination with local, state and federal authorities to work with foreign governments, getting warrants extraditable through the U.S. Marshal's Office (professional courtesy) and working with the foreign authorities. BUT BE REST ASSURED, the bounty hunter goes to great lengths (more so than most law enforcement agencies foreign and domestic) to catch his fugitive.


Boba Fett was paid a lot of money. Remember, he was also the manifestation of the Storm Troopers. Not only was he paid really, really well he was embodied and embedded in the Republic.

As to money, that is why people go to bounty hunters. We charge a lot of money, but we get our guy. As the PODCAST described; I charge no less than $2,500 per case and have been paid up to $120,000.00 for 45 minutes worth of work. Bounty Hunters make great money, but our resources are not as extensive as Law Enforcement and we do not have the luxury of having a Government backed police force behind us... (speculation of private and puclic law enforcement has been raised, but I know of no bail agent that would empower a law enforcement agent or a law enforcement agent that would want to be empowered by a bail agent. call it ego or financial suicide.)