How bail keeps people locked up for being poor, and led to a $2 billion private industry

What's wrong with the bail system in the US
What's wrong with the bail system in the US

The bail bond industry rakes in an estimated $2 billion per year, according to industry observers.

When someone finds themselves in jail, they can often gain their freedom while they await trial by posting bail. But even small bails amounting to just $500 or $1,000 can prove unaffordable for many. In fact, 40% of Americans say they could not afford an unexpected $400 expense, according to the Federal Reserve. Bail bonds offer a way out. Bond companies will post bail for defendants in exchange for a fee of about 10-15% of the total bail amount.

But once defendants get out of jail, they may find themselves in a different predicament. Required to sign strict contracts, defendants often can find themselves paying more than they expected, wearing ankle monitors, and even — in some cases — being threatened with a return to jail if they do not pay extra fees. Industry representatives condemn such actions, saying these types of interactions between bond agents and their clients are not the norm.

Either way, it's no surprise that many defendants decide to avoid bail bonds and stay in jail. However, staying in jail can have negative consequences as well. Robin Steinberg, CEO and founder of the Bail Project, told CNBC that just remaining in jail before a trial makes defendants more likely to be found guilty and get longer sentences.

All of this has helped fuel a reform movement but the best way forward has yet to materialize. Bail agents also worry that reducing the use of bail and releasing more people pretrial will increase crime rates.

For more about the estimated $2 billion bail bond industry, watch the video above.

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