The Marshall Project found that bail companies took in $43 million over 18 months in Mississippi, where the average annual income is less than $22,000.
Reporters analyzed data from the state Department of Insurance and found that private bail companies collected more than a third (36 percent) of their fees from people charged with minor offenses.
Of 193 bail companies in the state, Corbett Bonding took in the highest revenue with $2.6 million in fees during a recent 18-month span. Nearly half (46 percent) of these fees were collected on bonds of less than $5000, which is the maximum amount for most misdemeanors in Mississippi.
Mississippi bail agents can charge 10 percent of the value of the bond or $100, whichever is greater, plus a $50 fee, on each bond. Even though bail agents all charge the same fees, Corbett Bonding (based in Tupelo) regularly writes more than 70 percent of bonds in several Mississippi counties. Corbett has been sued for monopolizing the bail business and complaints filed with the state insurance department allege Corbett has cornered the bail business by making illegal gifts to people who work in the jails and courts.
Mississippi insurance commissioner Mike Chaney told reporters that the bail system is "the most rotten system in the United States." He said judges and lawyers told him that bail agents extorted sex from female clients and pushed men to transport drugs. After an FBI investigation into a bail agent who pleaded guilty to using counterfeit paperwork to write more than a million dollars in illegal bonds, Mr. Chaney succeeded in getting lawmakers to pass a new law that requires bail agents to record every bond on the insurance department's website.
Mississippi has long been one of the friendliest places in the country for the bail bond industry, the Marshall Project reports. But starting in 2015, bail reform advocates filed lawsuits in several cities alleging that bond schedules for misdemeanors created unconstitutional debtors' prisons by requiring those too poor to pay to wait up to a week in jail before seeing a judge. The cities responded by ending the use of money bail in misdemeanor cases.
Then, last year, new state court rules banned bail schedules and established the right to see a judge within 48 hours after arrest. The judge is required to release people who are not a flight risk or danger to the community on a written promise to appear. Cash bail will continue for most felonies.
Todd Kemp, sheriff of Clarke County and past president of the Mississippi Sheriffs Association, told the Marshall Project that the new rules have cut his jail population in half, making it safer and easier and less expensive to operate.
Adoption of the new rules statewide is expected to take time, and there is no statewide digital record system to ensure compliance. But reporters examining insurance data found the number of bonds written fell 19 percent in the first nine months since the rule change.