Stephen J. DUBNER: So, if I’m a criminal and I jump bail, and I have to choose between having the cops bringing me in for trial or a bounty hunter, I definitely want to put that job in the hands of the police.
Alex TABARROK: Bounty hunters are much more likely to get their man. I like to say that the bounty hunters are the true long arm of the law.
I know what you’re thinking. Bounty hunters? Those motorcycle vigilantes, with their glam-rock hair and their big biceps and tattoos — those are the guys who have a higher capture rate than the police? Not exactly, says Alex Tabarrok. He’s an economist at George Mason University and coauthor of a paper that looks at the commercial bail-bond industry.
TABARROK: So, after we published this article, some of the bounty hunters actually got in touch with me. And I said, hey maybe I should be a little bit of a roguish kind of character, and I asked if I could go out with them actually on the streets and actually learn outside of my office what bounty hunting was all about.
Tabarrok went off with a bounty hunter named Dennis in Baltimore. He learned that bounty hunting is all about business. No high-speed chases, no gun battles. As Dennis made clear, you don’t want to rough up the fugitives or their families because — well, here, Tabarrok will tell you:
TABARROK: The bounty hunters, they’re very polite. Yeah, these guys are not breaking down doors at all. And I asked, you know, I ask Dennis why this is. And he says it’s because we do rely a lot on repeat business. You know, he tells me about one of his customers who told him quite proudly that we’ve been coming to this firm for three generations. It’s just awful really.
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You may have heard recently about the trouble caused by a certain well-heeled gentleman, used to run the International Monetary Fund? Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Frenchman, allegedly committed a sexual assault against a housekeeper in his Manhattan hotel and, shortly afterward, boarded a flight home to France. But the police plucked him off the plane and arrested him. He’s since been charged, and now awaits trial. But he’s not in jail: instead, he’s out on bail: a $1 million cash payment and a $5 million bond. That money is meant to guarantee that Strauss-Kahn will show up at his trial. And it’s hard to imagine that he could flee — he’s under court-ordered 24-hour surveillance. But if he did somehow manage to scram? We’re talking bounty-hunter bingo, baby!
Here’s how commercial bail bonds work. Let’s say you’re arrested for a crime, and the judge releases you on a $5,000 bail. You don’t have the money, so you go to your local bail bondsman. You fill out an application that asks for all kinds of information — previous arrests, employer, union membership, make and model of your car, and even your kids’ names and where they go to school. Now the bondsman agrees to pay the court that $5,000, in return for a 10-percent fee. So you pay him $500, and you sign a contract promising to show up in court. Now, if you’re a no-show on your court date, it’s the bondsman’s $5,000 that’s at risk. The judge gives him 90 days to find you. And that’s when your bondsman picks up the phone and calls a bounty hunter.
Under current law, bounty hunters have a lot of latitude. They can break into a fugitive’s home without a warrant, they can chase suspects across state lines without worrying about extradition proceedings, they can search and seize without constraint.
Now, there are some limits — bounty hunters can’t use unnecessary force, and they’re liable if they break into the wrong home. For some people, that’s not nearly enough. Four states (Wisconsin, Oregon, Illinois and Kentucky) have banned commercial bail bonds, and the U.S. is in fact one of only two countries in the world that allow this system. (The other is the Philippines.) One former Supreme Court justice called the bail bond industry “odorous.”
But Alex Tabarrok, the economist, doesn’t see it that way. Especially if you look at the economics of the criminal-justice system.
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 a colleague, Eric Helland, analyzed data on 36,000 felony defendants in the U.S.
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 five thousand dollar bail, and if you don’t show up, he loses the five thousand dollars. 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.
Tabarrok found that people who are released on commercial bail, who know that a bounty hunter will be after them if they skip court, that they’re substantially more likely to show up than someone who’s released on his own recognizance or on government bail. In that case, you typically pay a deposit of just a few hundred dollars. But fugitives behave differently when they know a bounty hunter may be after them, and it’s not only the bounty hunter they’re worried about.
TABARROK: The way a lot of this works is they get somebody to cosign on the bond; a family member or a friend to cosign on the bond. So, this means that if the defendant skips town, not only is the bail bondsman out, but potentially so is the friend who has cosigned on the bond, or the family member who has cosigned on the bond. And I asked again, Dennis, about this. And he says, I deal with a lot of mean people in my business. These guys, they’re not afraid of me, they’re not afraid of the police. But they’re still afraid of their mother. So, if I get the mother to cosign on the bond, and this guy knows that the mother might lose her house if he doesn’t show up for trial, he’s going to show up for trial.
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 bondsman 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.
Coming up: The man who wrote the book on bounty hunting.
Bob BURTON: By ’85, Robert De Niro’s manager saw the book, bought it, and then made the movie “Midnight Run” based on the book.
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BURTON: Well, all right, my name is Bob Burton. I’m in California. I run a large organization composed of bounty hunters. We operate throughout the United States, coast-to-coast, border-to-border. We made over thirty thousand arrests last year of individuals who fail to live up to the bail bond contract.
Bob Burton runs the United States Coalition of Bail Recovery Agents, or, US COBRA, based in Santa Barbara. It’s a network of about 1,500 bounty hunters, or bail enforcement agents, as he calls them.
BURTON: Also, four hundred of my agents are women, because women make very good bounty huntresses. There’s an old saying that God created men and women, but Samuel Colt made us equal.
Burton’s been doing this for quite a while.
BURTON: Well, my career as a bounty hunter began when I was an insurance broker in California in the late– early, early eighties. A friend of mine, Bob Brown, started a magazine called Soldier of Fortune Magazine.
DUBNER: Oh yeah.
BURTON: Out of Boulder, Colorado. We were buddies and he asked me to go down to El Salvador to cover the war, which was starting down there. I was saturated with a need for adrenaline like I had never felt before. The adrenaline of the war, dealing with Green Berets, enemy incoming fire, beautiful women in the city, rogue scoundrel newsmen from all over the world, I couldn’t be an insurance broker anymore. So I went into bounty hunting. And my luck was that I knew some bounty hunters. They took me into the business and taught me. I wanted a book. I could not find any book, so it turned out I wrote the book Bounty Hunter, which turned out to be the first book ever written on the subject, unbeknownst to me. And then one step further, by ’85, Robert Deniro’s manager saw the book, bought it, and then made the movie Midnight Run based on the book.
DUBNER: Right, now Bob, there are some academics that have studied the data on inmates who jump bail, and to see whether bounty hunters are more efficient, more effective at bringing them in than police, have found that the answer is yes. I’m guessing this finding doesn’t really surprise you too much, does it?
BURTON: It doesn’t because frankly we know we capture about ninety-four to ninety-six percent of everybody that jumps bail.
Actually, a Department of Justice report says bounty hunters capture ninety-seven percent of the fugitives they pursue. Ninety-seven percent!
BURTON: The NYPD, the LAPD, and the Chicago PD fugitive details arrest about 50 to 60 percent of all wanted individuals. Why? They only work a forty-hour week, they get paid regardless.
Now, it’s not that the police are slacking off. It’s just, as Burton points out, that the police and bounty hunters have different incentives — and different duties. The police have other cases to pursue, other jobs to do. Sometimes, the police and a bounty hunter will be going after the same fugitive, which can lead to friction.
BURTON: Yeah, 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 had, why the hell did those bounty hunters get to them before we did?
A bounty hunter’s salary can vary greatly depending on a lot of factors — especially, of course, the size of the bond. Burton says a typical bounty hunter earns between $48,000 and $65,000 a year, which is pretty much in line with a police officer salary. Bounty hunters do have to pay for their own equipment, though.
BURTON: Well, when you come into the business the first thing you got to do is buy a good thirty-five, forty-dollar pair of handcuffs. Then you got to buy a pistol if you don’t already have one, 350 to 500 bucks. You should have a four-door car ideally a van where you can transport the prisoner from New York to New Orleans, because prisoners flee. When they flee, the bondsman’s going to call a bounty hunter in the area, the targeted area that he’s fleeing to. Like, New York agents get calls all the time from Miami, New Orleans, Texas, you name it.
DUBNER: Dog the Bounty Hunter is on TV. I’m guessing that if people watch that show and they come away with an impression of how a bounty hunter acts in his daily business, I guess that’s maybe a tiny bit exaggerated. Can you help me out there?
BURTON: It’s grossly exaggerated. First of all, no one in the industry acts, or rather looks like that. We’re dealing with cops, judges, district attorneys. We’re dealing with the members of the community. We can’t look the way he looks. You either dress well, or you dress in plain street clothes. Forget the long hair, you stand out, and it’s pure television nonsense the way he looks.
DUBNER: And in addition to the look though, talk to me about what the work of a bounty hunter is actually like on a daily basis. What do you have to do, and what do you have to do well to be a good bounty hunter?
BURTON: A bounty hunter’s work is ninety percent boredom, three percent adrenaline. It’s sitting in cars, working on the telephone, calling people, trying to find an answer where he would be. You have to be good on the phone as a bounty hunter; you must have phone skills. You must have an ability to talk to street swine, and district attorneys, and attorneys. 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.
DUBNER: Now, Bob, just between you and me, if I was a bounty hunter looking for you, who’s your Judas?
BURTON: Good question, it’s probably fifteen surfer chicks here at the beach in Santa Barbara.
DUBNER: Just fifteen, a guy like you? I’m surprised it’s only fifteen.
BURTON See, in my business, AARP, means An American Ready to Party, okay? We have…One of the oldest bounty hunters in the United States was back east, he has to be seventy-nine or eighty.
DUBNER: How old are you, Bob?
DUBNER: How old are you, Bob?
BURTON: I’m seventy-two. I look forty-one, of course.
DUBNER: Especially on the radio.