Cities of Bail

At the start of my professional career I had the privilege to sit down with Chief Justice Charles Daniels, one of the champions of bail reform within the American judiciary, and discuss cash bail bonding as he experienced on the ground and from the bench. As a New Mexico native, I had always thought fondly of Justice Daniels as ”my” chief, and I’m glad I got the chance to meet him before his untimely passing due to ALS. During our meeting, Justice Daniels emphasized the power commercial bail bondsmen exert, not just through their interactions with defendants, but also through their control of property belonging to defendants’ families and kin. It turns out that many high bail amounts (“high” ranging anywhere from $5,000 to $300,000 and up) are secured by mortgaging one’s home or the home of a loved one. ”If you could just see the number of grandmothers in Albuquerque having their property foreclosed by the bail system, you’d have a real understanding of what this system does,” Justice Daniels observed.

As it happens, you can indeed see those properties. And seeing them deepens our understanding of the American bail system. The project that follows is dedicated to the memory of Chief Justice Charles Daniels.

The commercial bail industry is famously opaque. Bail bonding agreements are private contracts and their terms are rarely disclosed to the public. But mortgaging property relies on a public recording system and thus opens a small but useful window in the world of commercial bail bonding practices. This project surveys property records from six urban counties in the United States from 2000 to 2020 to survey, track, and analyze the use of liens and mortgages to secure pretrial release. A detailed description of the research project can be found below. Updates will be posted periodically to this site’s blog.

Cities of Bail Prospectus