Voices From Inside the System

‘The Real Problem Lies With Bail Being Used as a Form of Punishment’

Bail bondsman Topo Padilla works in a $3 billion industry where Black and Hispanic detainees make up nearly half of the jail population

Photo illustration, source: Bettmann/Getty Images Plus

Voices From Inside the System is a new GEN series where we interview people who have had firsthand experience in industries with especially fraught histories of systemic racism. We asked our subjects to think deeply about the role they played and the work they did. We asked them why they stayed or why they left, how they might be complicit, or if they thought they — or anyone — could fundamentally change the system.

Topo Padilla, 55, is a bail bondsman and president of the Golden State Bail Agents Association. Bail bonds are a $3 billion industry, and two-thirds of the jail population are pre-trial detainees. The share of people who needed to post bail in order to avoid pre-trial detention increased from 53% in 1990 to 72% in 2009; the average cost of bail also doubled in that same time period. In 2018, the population of Black detainees in jail was 39%, compared to 13% of the larger population. Padilla spoke with journalist Haley Cohen Gilliland about his work.

My father got into the bail bond industry in 1979; before that, he sold used cars. I started spending time around my family’s bail bond business at the age of 13. Watching my mom and dad develop relationships with people who had done some pretty heinous crimes showed me you can build a bond with anyone. It takes people on both sides to have integrity in what they say they’re going to do, and to follow through with it.

I love to help people. I don’t care whether they’re rich, poor, Black, or white. When I hear our industry affects people of color and people of poor economic status more than others, I would have to say, that could be true, but it’s not my fault. It could be true because more minorities are arrested. Why are there more minorities arrested? Well, that’s not for me to answer in what I do as a bail bondsman.

In the last two weeks, I had two African American families in my office. One of the women in the group told me: “Well, this bail thing is ridiculous.” I scooted myself over and I said, “Can I ask you a question? Do you pay car insurance and homeowners insurance?” “Yeah,” they said. So I told them, “Okay, well, I’m in insurance. I’m licensed by the California Department of Insurance. I’m an insurance agent that puts insurance policies up for people, guaranteeing people’s appearance in court.”

When I got done, she told me she’s very involved in some civic groups, and that’s not what she hears at their meetings. “They’re telling me you’re predators. You’re just taking from the poor.” I go, “Well, I don’t set bails. I don’t arrest people. I’m the guy who just says, ‘Okay this is how much your bail is, I’ll help you exercise your right.’”

I am depressed that people want to eliminate our industry or the constitutional right to bail ourselves out of jail. They’re not my enemy, they’re just misinformed on where the real problem lies with the bail bond industry. It doesn’t lie with us. It lies with bail schedules, it lies with how much bails are set at, it lies with bail being used as a form of punishment.

There has to be an incentive for a person to go to court, and that’s what bail is. And that incentive has to make sense and has to make you feel like you have skin in the game.

The problem with our system right now in California, specifically, is our bail schedules are so high. They’re absolutely ridiculous. And many times, they are used as a form of punishment, which they should not be. They are used to keep people in jail, so that person would plead guilty quicker than they might if they were out of custody.

There are only two countries in this world that have commercial bail bondsmen like myself, and that is the United States of America and the Philippines. And the opposition, the bail reformers, use that as a nail that they want to put in our coffins.

Go to Mexico, China, Japan, England, or Australia and commit a crime. There are no bail bonds in those countries. Chances are, you’re going to sit in jail until your case is resolved. In the United States of America, we have the constitutional right to bail ourselves out of jail while we’re going to court. For that right to be extinguished is a tragedy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Writer. Words in @nytimes , @natgeo , @Outsidemagazine @VanityFair. Previously covered the American West + Argentina @TheEconomist . www.hcgilliland.com

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