Search the Site

Episode Transcript

Steven ZALEWSKI: So, people come into my office and let’s say it’s eight o’clock in the morning, and last night, their son got arrested for possession of a weapon. They’re frantic. The police department isn’t giving them information. The court system’s not giving them information. So, they want to know what’s going on. They always want to know what the charge is. They want to know where they were arrested. And then they want to know how they get him out. When I get the person released, my fee is then made.

That is Steven Zalewski. He’s a criminal defense attorney in New York. But, he also has another job.

ZALEWSKI: I am one of the owners of Affordable Bails New York.

Affordable Bails is one of around 25,000 bail bond companies in the United States. These businesses are usually across the street from a courthouse, illuminated by neon signs. And for those accused of crimes, they offer a way to get out of jail while awaiting trial. More than 2 million Americans use their services each year to post around $15 billion dollars’ worth of bail. Bail bonds are a controversial business. They’re often portrayed as seedy establishments, with briefcases full of cash and bounty hunters who kick down doors. And some of that is true. But the economics of the industry are often misunderstood.

ZALEWSKI: It’s a common misconception that I walk in with $100,000 in my hand. Basically — I’m giving them a promissory note. When your kid got arrested for doing something stupid you may not have $5,000 you can come to court with.  

For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: bail bonds.

*      *      *

When you’re charged with a crime in America, you’re usually taken to a local jail. Within a few days, a judge will review your case and decide if you should be given bail. That’s the option to get out of jail while you’re waiting for your court date. If you’re granted bail, in most cases, the court wants some kind of assurance that you’re going to show up when you’re supposed to. So, they’ll order you to put up a sum of money to secure your release.

ZALEWSKI: The concept is that if, if there’s a financial stake in your return, people will likely return.

Again, that’s Steven Zalewski.

ZALEWSKI: If they set bail, they can set it in multiple forms. Some states actually have a schedule — so, if you commit crime A, the bail is X. Other states have complete discretion of the court.

The amount of your bail varies depending on where you live, and what you’re charged with. You might be ordered to pay something like $5,000 if you’re accused of misdemeanor assault. It could be $25,000 for grand theft auto, And for something like murder, kidnapping or rape, bail might be well into the six-, or even 7-figures. When you’re granted bail, you generally have a few options. You can pay the full amount — let’s say $5,000 — to the court. Assuming you show up to your court dates, you’ll eventually get it back after your case is resolved, less fees and surcharges.

ZALEWSKI: If you pay into the court system, the court, for instance, New York’s, take a three or four percent surcharge.

If you don’t have $5,000, another option is to stay in jail.

ZALEWSKI: I would say the majority of Americans right now don’t have $5,000 laying around in their house they can pay.

When you don’t pay your bail, you might sit in jail for months or even years, waiting for your court date. But, there’s another alternative: you can call up a bail bond company. The bail bond industry traces its origins to the Wild West. As the story goes, in the late 1800s, two brothers, Peter and Thomas McDonough, picked up on an opportunity while working at their father’s saloon in San Francisco. They realized that most of the local criminals didn’t have any family members around to post bail to the courts when they got in trouble. So, they began charging a fee to front them the money. The business was so profitable that the brothers eventually replaced the saloon with a bail bond establishment. The concept spread around the country — and by the mid-20th century, bail bond companies were a fixture in the American justice system.

ZALEWSKI: The purpose of the bail bond industry is to provide someone with the ability to get out relatively quickly, as well as make sure that the person returns to court.

Zalewski started his firm, Affordable Bails New York, around 15 years ago. He was well aware of the industry’s unsavory reputation.

ZALEWSKI: I was a criminal defense attorney for many years, and before I even knew anything about the bond business all I would hear, to be quite honest with you, were horror stories — people being charged exorbitant fees, never being able to get collateral money back, you know, people revoking bonds because the guy was 15 minutes late for his check in.

Since starting his firm, Zalewski says he’s posted around 75,000 bail bonds for clients in the state of New York. The business model for all those bonds is pretty simple.

ZALEWSKI: So, you have to look at us as an insurance agency. A little different than the guy that sells you car insurance, but nonetheless, we are an insurance company. I’m handing them a bond, which is a promissory note that says, “Hey, if he doesn’t come back to court, I pay.”

In return for taking on this risk, bail agents charge a fee. In most states, it’s around 10 percent of the bail amount. So, for a $5,000 bail, you pay $500 bucks — and you don’t get it back. Sometimes, for bigger bail amounts, Zalewski will also take collateral to cover his risk.

ZALEWSKI: They may give me the deed to their house, and I’ll put a lien on their home. I’ve gotten things as exotic as Bugattis — I mean, amazing cars. Engagement rings are, believe it or not, very common. So, we collateralize the bail with what we think is appropriate based on the crime.

The people who pay these fees and put up this collateral are usually the defendant’s family members on the outside. And, they’re almost always women.

Joshua PAGE: You know, typically they are mothers, grandmothers, spouses, partners, former partners, sisters and so forth.

Joshua Page is a professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota. He researches criminal punishment. He spent 18 months working as a bail bond agent to better understand how the industry works. Page says there are sociological reasons why bail companies target women. They’re perceived to be more sympathetic, more loyal and,  ultimately, more willing to put up money for loved ones in need. To find clients, bail agents will often attend the initial court hearings where judges assign bail. They’ll seek out a defendant’s family members in court and offer emotional support.

PAGE: The legal process is often really confusing. You know, people — lawyers, judges — in many ways speak a different language. So what bail agents do is they, you know, strategically present themselves as somebody that can help.

Many bail agents will also form quid pro quo relationships with criminal defense attorneys.

PAGE: They have this mutual referral system: the bail agents, when they talk to defendants, will try to refer them to the lawyers, and the lawyers will try to refer clients to the bail bond agents.

If all else fails, they’ll make cold calls.

PAGE: They’ll pay attention to the jail rosters that are increasingly online. And when people’s bail comes up, they’ll put their name and number and birth date into a software program that provides information about family members, and start cold calling, saying that they’re happy to help them out and get the defendant out of jail.

When a family member signs a contract with a bail bond company, they become a co-signer — essentially a guarantor on a loan. And, if a defendant is bailed out and decides to go on the run, that can become a problem for everyone involved. That’s coming up.

*      *      *

Once a defendant is out on bail, Steven Zalewski, of Affordable Bails NY, has to play enforcer.

ZALEWSKI: My responsibility then is to monitor the person, make sure they go back to court.

If a defendant goes on the lam, the bail bond company could be on the hook for the full bail amount. It’s in Zalewski’s interest to find the fugitive and bring him back in. And for that, he usually employs a bounty hunter.

DOG THE BOUNTY HUNTER CLIP: We’re gonna hunt this scum down. The only way this guy will get away from us is if he kills himself right now and jumps into a pool of sharks.

You may recognize this line of work from reality TV shows like Dog the Bounty Hunter. But Zalewski says those depictions are exaggerated.

ZALEWSKI: They had three or four bail bond shows, and, you know, they made everybody look like they were crazy. What it did is it took an industry that had some legitimacy and made it look ridiculous. I mean, I don’t need a guy with the, you know, hair extensions and a paintball gun running around to catch people. It’s just it doesn’t make any sense.

If there’s a kernel of truth in these shows, it’s that bounty hunting can sometimes be violent. There have been many documented cases of bounty hunters killing bail bond fugitives. In one case, a New Orleans man was allegedly shackled, beaten, and stuffed in a trunk. He had failed to show up to court for stealing a bottle of aspirin. But Zalewski says the typical search is resolved without incident.

ZALEWSKI: So, the first calls we make are to the family. What we do is we check to see if the person has been rearrested, or if they’re in the hospital. Within two hours of finding that out, we are at their house to see if they’re home. And I’d like to tell you it’s a big secret, but it’s not. 90 percent of the people who skip bail are with a family member. The average search, to be honest with you, probably takes three to four days, if someone’s really running.

Every now and then, Zalewski’s bounty hunters cut it pretty close.

ZALEWSKI: So, someone was on a $500,000 bail. They left. We searched for two months and could not find the person. We get a call from a retired police officer who lives in Tennessee. And he says, “Hey, listen, are you looking for somebody?” and describes the woman. And it turns out, she met this fella, they were dating, and she spouts off that she ran on a $500,000 bail in New York. And we went down to Tennessee and got her.

Sometimes, Zalewski says, returned defendants will attempt to use his office as a storage unit for contraband.

ZALEWSKI: People would literally come to surrender, and they bring their backpack. And I take the backpack and search it, and there were guns, drugs. And I’m like, are you kidding me? “So, I can get this when I get out?” I said, “No, you can’t get the gun back and the drugs.”

Once a fugitive is apprehended, the bounty hunter is typically paid 10 to 20 percent of the bond amount. Joshua Page, the sociologist, says family members who co-sign the bail bond contract often have to foot the bill.

PAGE: If the bail company sends a bounty hunter after a defendant, the co-signer will be charged for the expense of the bounty hunter. Co-signers also agree to give bail companies access to all kinds of personal records. And when a person goes missing, it’s the co-signer that the bail company really contacts a lot.

In theory, if a fugitive isn’t returned to court, the bail bond company has to pay the full amount of the bond. In the business, that’s called a forfeiture. But courts rarely make these companies pay up.

ZALEWSKI: We were doing an average of 60 to $100 million a year. We were doing forfeitures in pay, less than one tenth of 1 percent.

By contrast, automobile and property insurers pay out up to 60 percent of their revenue in losses. Part of the reason for these small forfeiture rates is that bail bond firms are backed by a handful of major insurance companies that often fight tooth and nail to avoid forfeitures. And courts tend to go easy on the bail industry by giving them long grace periods.

ZALEWSKI: With a bail bond company, when someone doesn’t show up in court, the court usually gives us 60 to 90 days to return the person, thereby avoiding forfeiture. 

The courts have their own economic incentive for giving bail bond companies leniency. And Page says it has to do with a serious point of contention in the American justice system.

PAGE: For the courts, it’s more of a matter of trying to save money and to offload responsibilities. You know, if people can’t afford the bail, then they’ll remain locked up. And so, in some ways, the bail bond industry functions as a release valve to try to deal with jail overcrowding.

The court’s stated purpose of bail is to give defendants a way to get out of jail before their trial, while giving the court assurance that they won’t jump town. But some scholars and criminal justice activists say that charging people cash has actually served the opposite purpose. In the 1980s, with crime at record levels and politicians calling for tougher punishments, judges started setting higher cash bail. Between 1990 and 2009, the average bail amount doubled. Since then, jails have become increasingly crowded. It’s estimated that on any given day, there are 413,000 people in city and county jails who haven’t yet been convicted of a crime. This pretrial incarceration comes at the expense of taxpayers. On average, it costs around $77 a day to house a single person. Across the entire pretrial prison population, that’s nearly $12 billion dollars in public funds each year. The problem isn’t just that cash bail is set too high. Some jurisdictions set bail that is so low, it disincentivizes bail bond agents from taking on the cases.

ZALEWSKI: Setting bail in those low amounts — $1,000 and $500 — serves no purpose at all. We don’t want to bail people out, because on a $1,000 bail my fee is $100.

These issues have led to broader cash bail reform efforts. Some states — like New York, California, Kentucky, and New Mexico — have cut down on cash bail by limiting the types of cases in which it can be used. Illinois recently became the first state to get rid of the practice altogether. Police there have been instructed to give out citations rather than arrest warrants where possible. And if prosecutors want to detain someone in jail before a trial, they have to present evidence at a hearing. But these alternative systems to cash bail are also very costly for taxpayers.

ZALEWSKI: The theory is that you’re trying to reduce the jail population because it costs money. But it also costs a lot to monitor people when they’re out, because you still have to have the infrastructure to do that.

New York, where Zalewski’s firm is based, changed its bail system in 2020. Cash bail was eliminated for most non-violent crimes, including burglary, drug offenses, and stalking. Those accused of certain crimes are free until their case is concluded — either without restriction, or with some kind of monitoring system.

Whether or not efforts like this have led to a reduction in crime and recidivism is a point of political contention. But it’s clear that bail reform — alongside a global pandemic — has had a sizable impact on the bail bond business. The assignment of cash bail in New York has plummeted in the past few years. Lots of bond agencies have closed down. And Zalewski has felt the squeeze too. Before 2020, Affordable Bails had 10 offices. Today, it’s down to just four.

ZALEWSKI: Originally, we were the largest bail firm in New York. With the change of the bail laws in New York, everybody became small. They wanted to make our industry the industry of the devil because, you know, we’re exploiting people by taking money from them so that someone could stay out of jail. We didn’t exploit people — what we did is we provided them with something that needed to be provided. But we’re still alive. Still in business. We survived. And one of few.

*      *      *

For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by me and Sarah Lilley and mixed by Jeremy Johnston. We had help from Daniel Moritz-Rabson.

ZALEWSKI: When you walk out of the courthouse and spit, you should be spitting on my door.

Read full Transcript


  • Joshua Page, professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota.
  • Steven Zalewski, criminal defense attorney and co-owner of Affordable Bails New York.



Episode Video