This story was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
In 2014, New Jersey voters supported a statewide initiative to largely get rid of cash bail, replacing it with a risk assessment score. These changes have placed the state at the forefront of a nationwide movement to overhaul a bail system critics say leaves poor, low-risk defendants sitting behind bars while dangerous suspects with resources are freed.
The new law went into effect January 1, 2017. Judges now use pretrial risk assessments to help them decide whether to detain people while they await trial, and in the 10,193 cases processed in New Jersey during the first three months of this year, judges set bail just eight times. Another 1,262 defendants were held without bail because they were deemed too risky for release or because they were accused of a serious crime. Facing the collapse of their business, some bail agents have started their own campaign to bring back cash bail. Chris Blaylock is one of the agents leading that charge.
I always figured I would go into the bail business. Growing up, I didn't know my biological father. My mom started dating Tommy, a bondsman in Fairfax, Virginia, right outside the beltway, when I was in my early teens. He took me under his wing, and I learned a lot about becoming a man thanks to him.
He and my mom started Kear Bonding, and they had a townhouse a block away from the jail. In my late teens, the phone would ring all night long, two in the morning, four in the morning. It was ingrained in me to pick it up and say, "Bail bonds, can I help you?" And I would oftentimes go with them to the jail to sign up clients. It wasn't uncommon for my mom or my step-dad to sit at the jail for hours waiting for a client to come out, not because they had to but because they chose to. We would arrange to get them in touch with rehabs, to give them a ride home, find them a place to sleep, get them food. There was a real connection with the clients.
Tommy died unexpectedly in 2008. I helped my mom wind down the liability for the bail company down there, and she moved up to New Jersey to be with my family and me. In 2010, we made the decision to start a bail business of our own. I built our first website myself. I did all the campaigns myself. It was a family business. In a strange sort of way, we felt connected again once we started the bonding business back up.
Check out the VICE doc on America's for-profit bail system.
My wife came up with the name, EZ Bail Bonds of New Jersey. It's not exactly original, but it gets to the point, right? I was out cutting the grass when we got our first call; my wife ran to tell me. I didn't even know where the jail was—we had to look it up.
Each state has their own regulations, but the people remain the same. The hardships remain the same.
We grew quickly and got up to three locations at one point, writing somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 to 1,400 bonds a year. I remember one guy who we monitored—we did everything we were supposed to, and he still fled. His fiancée, who signed for him, she worked at one of the casinos. She was a homeowner, and she was at risk financially. We eventually apprehended him and surrendered him to authorities, and a month and a half later, I got a letter from him thanking me for taking him into custody and making him face these charges.
I have stories on the other end, too. Most people aren't necessarily pleased they have to go to jail when they miss court. But there's a silver lining that makes it rewarding for us. We protected the victim, the indemnitor who signed, and we protected the court system.
In 2013, we started to hear a lot of talk about bail reform. They were going to put it to voters as a ballot question, and they were selling it as: "We're going to lock up the bad guys and let out the poor." That made sense to a lot of voters. But what they didn't tell you was they were going to virtually eliminate the bail industry with an algorithm.
On January 1 of this year, everything changed. There's still technically still such a thing as "bail:" in New Jersey, but business is virtually nonexistent, so it's not sustainable as a way of life by any means.
It's not a crime if someone has the money to bail out their son and someone else doesn't. And people are making that a crime. They are making defendants into victims.
I'm tired of being demonized as a profiteering industry that preys on the poor. So in February, I built a website, USBailReform.com.
One of the stories we recently posted was about Terrell Jones. He was arrested twice in February. He went through the risk assessment, and they released him with no bail. Catch and release. One day after he was released the second time, he was found unresponsive outside a motel. He'd overdosed and died.
If his bail was $2,500 and he called family from jail, it's possible they would have refused to bail him out because they were concerned about his drug problems. They could have slowed the process down and arranged a bed for him in rehab. Or, at the very least, they might have been confident he wouldn't overdose in jail. Releasing Jones did nothing for him. If anything, it might have contributed to his death, and I find that disheartening.
In my experience, the average citizen is probably not going to care whether or not our industry survives. We still have a responsibility to the state for the bails we have to service that are still outstanding. I can tell you with confidence I'm still on the hook for $6 million or $7 million, easily.
I do have a small office in Delaware that we're getting up and running. We just hope that offsets some of what's going on here in Jersey.