Project description

The Marshall Project pulled back the curtain on the lucrative finances of the bail bond industry. As private insurance agents working in the public justice system, bail agents have been able to keep their profits and methods secret.
The Marshall Project found that:
· Misdemeanor charges seldom require cash bail under Mississippi laws and procedures, but these petty charges accounted for more than three quarters of bail bonds written;
· Bail agents can make big profits with little skin in the game. Over an 18-month period, the state’s biggest bail agent wrote $46 million in bonds backed by $30,000 in collateral. He personally grossed over $800,000 a year in the poorest state in the nation;
· State law bakes in a guaranteed profit for petty charges by setting a minimum $150 charge;
· Bail agents also profit from those charged with serious crimes via the payment plan. Defendants facing charges of murder, armed robbery or sexual battery buy their freedom for a few hundred dollars. When a bail agent frees a client from jail, their sole concern is that their client appears in court. They have no responsibility for public safety.

What makes this project innovative?

A source emailed Neff a 2016 press release from the Mississippi Department of Insurance pushing the passage of a law creating a database to track all bail bonds written in Mississippi. Neff learned the law had been passed and filed a public records request for the data. This is the first deep analysis of the profits reaped by bail bondsmen in Mississippi

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

The article created a stir in the state capital. The bail bond industry attacked the article but could not point out a single factual error or unfair sentence in the story. The Marshall Project pointed this out in in response. The Mississippi legislature is the body that can make changes in law or regulation. They convened on Jan. 8, 2019 for the first time since the article ran.

Source and methodology

The story relied on a recently created database from the Mississippi Department of Insurance that tracked the details of every bail bond written in the state. We explained our analysis to readers in a “How we did it” sidebar. We received the data as .csv files. There was no cost. We ultimately analyzed 109,894 bail bonds written from Oct. 1, 2016 through March 31, 2018. We chose this period to analyze and compare the bonds written in the nine months before and nine months after July 1, 2018, when the new Rules of Criminal Procedure went into effect. The data posed problems. Bail agents entered the data. As a rule, they have little or no training and made thousands of errors in data entry. Misplaced decimal points were a common error, leaving bond amounts or balance due off by a factor of 10 or 100. Agents often lumped several bonds into a single entry, despite instructions to enter the bond for each charge individually. The biggest obstacle was adapting a database designed for civil purposes (the Department of Insurance’s regulation of the surety industry) to analysis of the criminal justice system. For example, the database design did not demand information on the precise criminal charges or whether the charges were misdemeanor or felony. To test the accuracy of the state’s digital records, Neff spent several days in two counties creating spreadsheets from handwritten entries in jail dockets, the stovetop sized books where sheriff deputies record the detention and release of every jail inmate.

Technologies Used

R and Excel.

Project members

Joseph Neff, Staff Writer Tom Meagher Managing Editor for Digital and Data Graphics by KATIE PARK and ALEX TATUSIAN Illustrations by NICOLE RIFKIN

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