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

Haley Cohen Gilliland
GEN
Published in
4 min readAug 10, 2020

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Handcuffs
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.

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Haley Cohen Gilliland
GEN
Writer for

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