The Bail Bonds Business
THE LIFE OF A BAIL BONDSMAN IS A RISKY ONE, with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line at any given time, defendants who might be flight risks, and a 24-hour schedule. While television and movies often play up the bounty hunting side of the business, or portray its exciting though inaccurately villainous tendencies, the actual day-to-day life of someone in the industry is much more about helping the criminally accused, the justice system, and even the economy.
It all begins when a defendant is believed to have committed a crime. The officer who arrests them will issue a bond amount based on a bond schedule. The accused can either post that bail or wait to go before a judge, who may increase or decrease the bond amount. The accused must pay the bail in order to convince the court to release him or her from jail. If the defendant returns for trial, the bail payment is returned to the individual, minus court costs. If, however, the defendant does not return to court, they forfeit the bail and he or she’s subsequent bail amount will be twice the previous amount when they are caught.
How the defendant pays the bail amount can go one of two ways. First, a cash bond, which is paying the full cost of the bail upfront, can be paid by anyone. If the accused makes all related court dates, they will receive back their money, minus any court fees.
Alternatively, purchasing a surety bond for 10 percent of the bail amount can also pay bails. After obtaining a co-signor from the client’s friend or family member, the bondsman will present the bond to the jail with the understanding that iftheir client does not make their court appearance, they will be on the hook to pay the amount of the bail bond, unless they can locate, apprehend and return the suspect within 60 days of bond forfeiture.
Not surprisingly, the bail bonds business is extremely risky, as bondsmen are often pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars to the court if the client does not appear. For that reasons, banks and insurance companies, the usual sureties on bond contracts, do not enter into the bail business. If done correctly, however, with proper risk assessment safeguards in place, the bail bonds business can be a lucrative one.
Matt McKeehan has run his own bail bonds business for the last 20 years. The business is such that he has 12 employees, five of them being bail bondsmen, at least one of which is always at their location in downtown Pensacola, including holidays and weekends. This makes for a high overhead; however, it enables them to provide around the clock customer service for his customers. Matt McKeehan is the largest bail bond company in the tri-county area.
“Our job is to get them out of jail and have them show up for court,” said McKeehan. “And if they don’t show up, our job is to bring them back to jail. That’s a round-the-clock job.”
When he is contacted to issue a bond for the bail amount, he essentially enters into a contract with both the client and the court that he is able and willing to pay the bail amount if necessary.
“We look at their charge, their job, prior arrests, where they were born, everything,” said McKeehan, when asked how he assesses the risk of a bond. “If they don’t show up, I have to hunt them down.”
That is the kind of life he is now used to living, according to McKeehan. Florida law grants a licensed bail bondsman the right to track down the suspect, arrest him or her, and bring the individual back to court. Balancing his desire to help people with his desire to stay in business is a difficult task for McKeehan, one that involves a lot of stress.
“We want them to be able to reenter society,” said McKeehan. “But I also don’t want to go broke. There are millions of dollars on the line. It’s very risky.”
Interestingly, the whole system of bail bonds actually helps the justice system. If someone is able to post bond quickly and easily, thanks to a bondsmen, this frees up jail space, officer time and taxpayer dollars.
“If someone is not sitting in jail, then they’re able to continue providing for their families, working, paying tax dollars, etc.,” said McKeehan. “If they skip their court date, the county doesn’t have to spend money to track them down; we do. We bring them back in at no expense to the Sheriff’s Office. It’s also good
for the defendant and their family because it’s easier to come up with a $1,000 bond fee than a $10,000 bail.”
Matt McKeehan Bail Bonds also offers what is called a rapid intake, which essentially means that if there is a warrant out for a person’s arrest, that person can come to the business’s location and the staff there can process everything, including their bail bond. This side-steps the entire jail scenario, meaning no handcuffs or bars, allowing the defendant to quickly reenter society, assuming they attend subsequent court dates.
“I teach our bondsmen to be good with and good to people,” said McKeehan. “It doesn’t matter what economic background they are from or if they’re black, white, Hispanic, or otherwise. These are people who need our help, and if it doesn’t present an unreasonable risk for us to help them, I want to do that.”