If you ask Demorrea Tarver what he'd do with an extra 30 grand, the polite 26-year-old man—his teeth decorated with gold veneers, the Burberry sticker deliberately left on the frame of his glasses—doesn't hesitate:
"I'd put a down payment on a house, or start a business," he tells me in a downtown cafe as his two-year-old daughter scribbles gleefully over a page of notes about her father's mounting bail bond debt.
Instead of doing that, he's paying that $30,000 and counting in $100 bi-weekly or monthly installments to Fred Frank Bail Bonds, a stone's throw away. He's been delivering the money—these days usually in person, in cash—to their offices across from Courthouse East, for the past eight years in an effort to pay off the 10 percent bail bond fee from his first and only arrest. His bail was set at $275,000—not far off the $250,000 to $350,000 bail for various officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray.
In 2008, Tarver, then 18, was arrested along with a few friends, he says, when a handgun was found in his Nissan Maxima along with some pot. Tarver maintains that he didn't know about the gun and that it was put in a handbag in the back of the car by the minor who was carrying it. He faced three possession charges in the incident.
He says one of the officers involved—he doesn't remember which one—"tried to tempt me to hit him. He said 'I know you're gonna hit me. Hit me.' I guess he wanted to rough me up or something—but I didn't do anything."
The main arresting officer in Tarver's case was the now-notorious Fabien Laronde, who was fired from the Baltimore Police Department earlier this year after a string of incidents and complaints about his conduct that date as far back as 2006, according to WBAL-TV. More recently, Laronde was banned from the courthouse for intimidating a witness, and then ultimately terminated for a separate incident after 15 years on the force. A number of cases connected to Laronde were dismissed earlier this year after a group of defense lawyers filed a joint motion to open his internal affairs file. Of the 21 cases brought by the motion in which Laronde was considered a key witness, 13 were dropped entirely.*
Weeks after Laronde arrested him back in 2008, Tarver's charges were dropped, too. He spent a couple of days behind bars while his mother, Jeannette Howard, came up with a down payment to post the $27,500 bail bond fee—a standard 10 percent non-refundable fee they couldn't afford.
But Tarver had been hit by a car a couple of years earlier. His mother tapped into the settlement for that incident and came up with $5,000 to bail her son out. The pair set up a payment plan with Fred Frank Bail Bonds to settle the rest.
Because he'd never been arrested before, Tarver didn't know what to expect, especially when it came to bail. "I didn't know nothing about the law," he says, but his friends who'd been arrested—"They'd be like, 'it's your first charge, Shorty, that's a high-ass bail for a tiny-ass gun.'"
Some advised him to stop making payments altogether in the hope the debt would be dropped. He'd heard stories of that happening.
But under a law passed in 2012 to crack down on bail bondsmen who discounted premiums and let payments slide to keep their business competitive, bondsmen are now required to "take all necessary steps to collect the total amount owed, including any debt collection remedies provided by law."
Tarver didn't know that, nor did his mother. At the time, payments were $150 biweekly and they could no longer afford that. So for several months, he did stop paying. This landed his case in the hands of a debt collector who, since 2011, has been adding $2,070 (10 percent of the principal they inherited) to his balance in annual interest, plus thousands more in attorney fees and court costs.
Tarver currently works full time at a Daltile warehouse for $18 an hour.
A legal assistant for Friedman & Associates, the debt collector chasing Tarver's payments, with his permission, explained that they charge a 10 percent annual interest rate because "under Maryland law we're allowed to."
As part of the court judgment a few years ago, Tarver made a deal with the debt collector to pay just $100 a month—that's all they can manage.
But even with monthly payments, Tarver owes more today than the day he took out the bond. In 2008 his balance was $20,700. In March of 2014 it was $27,112. As of last month he owed $29,433, including $5,540 in interest, according to paperwork and information obtained by the City Paper.
But as long as he pays just $100 a month, Tarver isn't even keeping up with the interest, putting him on track to pay the debt never, literally. At this rate, the longer he's alive, the more debt he will accumulate—a striking but common occurrence when it comes to debt of all kinds.
Some forms of debt, like payday loans, are now facing tougher regulations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—but bail bond debts collection doesn't fall into that category.
A debt like this is almost guaranteed to push Tarver into bankruptcy, destroying his credit but also stopping the flow of money to the debt collector. The longer he waits to do that, the greater return the collector will have on their investment.
"[Debt collectors] get what they can above and beyond what they paid for the debt," which can be as little as pennies on the dollar, says Doug Gansler, a former Attorney General of Maryland with a background in contract and consumer protection law.
While the collectors could alert Tarver that increasing his monthly payments would give him a shot at eventually paying off his debt, they are not legally required to advise him of this—a reality of the law Gansler calls "tragic."
Jeffrey Friedman of Friedman & Associates says that there was no record of such a discussion with Tarver in his office, but "he can always call in. I am happy to discuss this with him."
"This just gives me a headache every time I talk about it," Tarver's mother says. Under the original payment plan she signed up for, "there's wasn't supposed to be no interest." She is baffled by the numbers. She had invested in a private attorney for Tarver's criminal case and for his judgment with the debt collector, but couldn't afford a lawyer to look further into the situation. "I said, 'God's gonna send me somebody who can help.'"
But it was back in 2008, when Tarver's bail was set by a District Court commissioner, that Howard, without any legal advice, unwittingly made a huge mistake: she rushed to post bail for her son on the same day it was set, instead of waiting for a judge to review it, which may or may not have changed the amount. But it was almost the weekend, and she was told that her son would have to spend the weekend behind bars for that, and she was anxious to get him out.
If there had been a bail review for Tarver, he would have been guaranteed representation—at that time, Baltimore City was one of just three Maryland counties that provided counsel at the bail review stage. Back in 2008, defendants in Maryland had to hire a private attorney if they wanted representation at their initial appearance before a bail commissioner. Until Maryland's high court recognized a statutory and then constitutional right to counsel in 2013, people who couldn't afford attorneys were on their own at this initial—and crucial—moment. Then, in July 2014, they were guaranteed the right to an attorney to represent them during the bail-setting process. But for some reason in Baltimore, 40 percent of those arrested are still waiving their right to representation at this starting point in the legal process—a number that gives pause to Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor.
"It's disturbing when people relinquish a constitutional right," says Colbert. "There's no way of knowing what takes place between the commissioner and the defendant that leads them to surrender such a valuable right. The hearings are closed to the public and there's no transcript, no record, and no opportunity to review what occurs there. What I'm hearing is that people are being told 'we can get you a lawyer but you're gonna have to go back to jail for the evening, or you can have a hearing right now before me.' It's putting the defendant in a very uncomfortable situation since they do not want to spend any more time in jail or alienate the commissioner."
There's no shortage of visible options for someone seeking a speedy bail bond. And there's more merchandise than ever making the service a ubiquitous presence through sexy ads and impossible-to-miss fluorescent pens, T-shirts, and even a mobile bail-bond car that travels around Baltimore. A tongue-in-cheek TV ad for Bad Boys Bail Bonds in California features a cross-dressing man in a night dress urging defendants to call them "because your Mama wants you home." That basic instinct is exactly where Howard's problems started—she wanted her son out of jail, fast.
She chose Fred Frank on a recommendation from a friend and managed to come up with the money—but an increasing number of those arrested simply don't have that option and are staying behind bars.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that of about 750,000 inmates jailed in the U.S. at any given time, 60 percent of them will not be convicted of a crime. A study of just one day in 2012 showed that 62 people in a Baltimore City jail were detained for offenses like theft and driving with a suspended license because they couldn't pay bails of $1,000 or less. According to an Abell Foundation report released this year, a study of six Maryland jurisdictions revealed that defendants had an average bond set of $39,041. Two-thirds of the defendants couldn't come up with the money.
On its website, Fred Frank Bail Bonds boasts "easy payment plans, with as little as 1% Down!" It's a common refrain in the bail bond industry. This is pretty much what Tarver got. But his crushing debt started with the bail amount itself, which was set by a Maryland District Court commissioner.
In setting bail for a defendant, "there's a whole number of factors we consider including prior criminal history, prior failure to appear," says Damon Streat, Deputy Executive Commissioner of the District Court of Maryland.
The details of his arrest have been stripped from District Court records, but Tarver insists he had none of those when he was bailed at $275,000. "I had never been in trouble," he says. According to court records he has four items listed: this arrest, a couple of traffic violations, and the judgment from his debt collector.
Today, eight years on, Tarver doesn't seem angry, resentful, or even frustrated; he is simply resigned.
"It was my luck," he says with a shrug. "If I don't pay, it'll go on my credit"—and that won't help him buy the house he wants some day.
But one thing does confuse him: his friend Donte was arrested in June on three charges, two of them identical to Tarver's. He has a longer record than Tarver. "So why was he bailed at just $50,000?" he asks.
No real logic can be applied to that question, says Paul DeWolfe, the Baltimore Public Defender who was the defendant in the case that ultimately guaranteed the right to attorneys at first appearances in Maryland. Tarver and Donte's bails were both set by a Maryland District Court commissioner. When hired, the commissioners are required to have a Bachelor's degree. No legal qualifications beyond that are necessary. The commissioners use information from a database to establish a bail amount.
After that, it's up to a judge to decide whether or not to adjust it. The process of naming a number is a crapshoot, says DeWolfe.
"[Commissioners] look at failure to report, failure to appear rate, and other databases that show where [the defendants] live, where they come from," he says. "But you won't know what the commissioner was thinking because the commissioner isn't guided by any standards—literally none. One commissioner might release you on personal recognizance and another would place a $275,000 standard."
But the bail industry's biggest lobby defends current practices in setting bail. When asked whether the widespread use of money bail disproportionately impacts the poor, Jeff Clayton, policy director of the American Bail Coalition (ABC) told RT News that "Every state statute I've seen requires a judge to consider somebody's ability to pay their bail when releasing them… I trust judges for the most part to make these decisions."
The $14 billion dollar bail bond industry prides itself on protecting "the Constitutional right to bail" and is "maximizing releases of defendants," which in turn helps reduce jail crowding, according to ABC's website, which features a red, white, and blue color scheme and majestic images of the Capitol. Ninety-five percent of jail growth in the last decade has resulted from an increase in unconvicted inmates. And the bail industry has lobbied for the expansion of surety bail as the key solution to this problem. The ABC is made up of insurance giants that underwrite companies like HK Insurance Services—more commonly known as Fred Frank Bail Bonds, which fall under the umbrella of Lexington National, an ABC affiliate. Many of the country's 15,000 bail bond agents fall under a handful of the ABC's affiliated insurance companies.
On their affiliates page, ABC's website calls on insurance companies to check whether they are a member and thus "supporting the bail bond industry." It urges: "If you don't see your surety listed, make sure to ask them why."
The ABC declined to comment for this article. Fred Frank Bail Bonds did, too.
Jeff Stanley, the founder Bad Boys Bail Bonds thousands of miles away in California, where a number of proposals in recent years have threatened his industry, was more forthcoming.
He built his business on aggressive marketing campaigns and fluorescent T-shirts. Where he wasn't allowed to put billboards, he parked advertising vans instead. "It was great because it brought controversy," he says.
When it comes to locating fleeing defendants, "We have a 99 percent success rate and we have to," he says, boasting a team of bounty hunters in Mexico that tracks down no-shows. "People skip because they won't want to lose their freedom"—and if they do, Bad Boys is on the hook for the full bail amount—a significant incentive to track them down.
He doesn't believe in people being released on their own recognizance. "It's only a matter of time before we see an increase in crime," he says, echoing industry representatives around the country. Instead he advocates for lower bails across the board and minimal releases on personal recognizance. That would allow more people to afford bail—and bail services like his, and lower the risk insuring of each defendant. "I am a businessman, but the industry has to work. Bail has to make sense."
Proponents of bail reform insist there are plenty of other, better options.
Four states and various jurisdictions across the country have abolished the for-profit bail bond system altogether. The U.S. is one of few countries that allows bail bondsmen to operate—the other big one is the Philippines.
Many critics argue that, in addition to disproportionately affecting the poor, money bail simply doesn't serve its primary purpose: to protect the public from potentially dangerous defendants and to ensure that those charged with a crime show up for their court dates.
Alternatives exist and other places are trying them. DeWolfe says two things can happen in Maryland: legislation can abolish the use of money bail and replace it with a different system, such as evidence-based risk assessment. This method uses a series of questions about jobs, family, education, and support-systems to predict a defendant's likelihood of showing up for court and has been successfully used, for example, for first-time offenders in Washington, D.C. Or they could use unsecured bonds instead of secured bonds.
The money bail system "is completely discriminatory," says DeWolfe, insisting that the set up encourages defendants who can't, or aren't willing to pay anything for their pretrial freedom to make false guilty pleas. "The effect the money bail industry has is that it divided people into two groups—those that have resources and those that don't."
For Tarver and his mother, a lack of understanding and a few mistakes led them down a rabbit hole of endless debt. Howard knew almost nothing about the bail industry when she went out to get that bond, but she does now. "I didn't know no better and he didn't know no better," she says. She's learned fast. "You need to know what you're up against."