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NEW YORK - Insurance companies have spent $17 million to defeat proposals to weaken or abolish the for-profit bail industry in the United States, a system that brings insurers $15 billion in business a year, according to a Reuters analysis of campaign contributions, company financial statements and interviews with more than three dozens experts on criminal justice, campaign finance or bail.
The spending has jumped more than 10-fold since 2010 as insurers have led the industry's lobbying effort, targeting laws in more than a dozen states, the analysis shows.
The industry opposition comes as President Joe Biden and other Democrats have renewed calls to dismantle what they describe as a biased system that harms mostly low-income people.
Illinois last month enacted a law to abolish cash bail by 2023, but it had already ended for-profit bail in 1963.
The insurance industry has succeeded, however, in beating back such measures in other states, allowing insurers to increase sales even as public pressure grows to reduce or eliminate cash bail. In 2019, bail insurers increased premium income by 8%, according to insurance credit agency AM Best.
(For graphics on U.S. bail bond issuance, and industry spending on lobbying and campaign contributions, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/3rc4nbJ and https://tmsnrt.rs/3d06nij)
Bail is meant to ensure people charged with crimes appear in court. Amounts range from as little as a few hundred dollars to $100 million or more. Defendants who post the full amount are freed pending trial and typically get their money back.
Those unable to afford bail can buy a "bail bond" - insurance guaranteeing that the full bail will be paid if they don't appear for court dates. Defendants are charged a nonrefundable fee, typically 10% of the bail, by a bail agent, and often are required to pledge homes and cars as collateral. The fee is split between the bail agent and the insurer.
Insurers and bail agents say their services keep communities safe from violent criminals while protecting the constitutional right to pretrial release for the accused.
Critics of for-profit bail - which exists only in the United States and the Philippines - say it often becomes a debt trap for poor defendants, who are disproportionately minorities. Some borrow money for their bond fees from bail agents on installment plans at high interest rates. The American Civil Liberties Union told Reuters it has seen rates of about 30%. That can leave defendants repaying long after their court cases are closed.
Bail bonds are lucrative for insurance companies. The gross profit margin of bail bonds, after paying claims and related expenses but before other costs, averages 83%, compared with 33% for insurers covering autos and homes, according to the latest data from AM Best and Refinitiv.