Today, in collaboration with USA TODAY NETWORK – Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, we published a story on Mississippi’s profitable bail bond industry. The story, built around a unique database, offers a rare look at exactly how much money bond company owners churn from the state’s steady flow of misdemeanor charges. The top money-maker took in $2.6 million over 18 months, almost half of it from people charged with low-level crimes.
Here’s how we did it.
When someone is arrested, a judge will often set bail. Bail is meant to guarantee the person will show up to court while the case is being decided. But plenty of people cannot afford the whole amount, which can be thousands of dollars. That’s when a bondsman steps in. For a nonrefundable fee, the bondsman promises the person will appear — or forfeit the whole bail amount to the court.
In October 2016, the Mississippi Department of Insurance began requiring bond agencies to report details of every bond they wrote. The database was the brainchild of Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, a former Republican legislator who had become appalled by bail industry practices.
Until the database, the information would have been almost impossible to get. It was kept all over the state in office records of bail agents, handwritten jail docket books, and individual files held in the state’s archipelago of courts spread around 82 counties and 250-plus municipalities.
Mississippi bail agents — the people who write the bonds that spring people from jail — now have to log a number of details for each bond, including their ID number, the ID for their company, bond number, date, defendant’s name, criminal charges, bond amount, premium charged, premium collected, and any subsequent payments.
This type of database is rare. We contacted every state to ask how they track bail bonds. Most states require no reporting, but the information can be obtained in a handful of states. Arkansas requires quarterly paper reports to the state’s Professional Bail Bondsman Licensing Board, while South Carolina requires monthly paper reports to each county’s clerk of courts. Oklahoma is the only other state whose regulator requires bail agents to report their bonds electronically. Records in these states can be obtained through public records requests. North Carolina requires bail agents to file reports with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which is not a public agency.
We began looking into the Mississippi database after a source sent us a March 2016 press release from the Department of Insurance urging the creation of the bail registry. We filed a public records request and received the data. We analyzed 109,894 bail bonds written from Oct. 1, 2016, through March 31, 2018.
We had a lot of questions:
How do agents make money?
Mississippi bail agents charge a non-refundable premium of 10 percent of the bond amount, or $100, whichever is greater, plus a $50 administrative fee. We examined the money that bail agents collected at release and any subsequent payments. Agents collected the full premium in most misdemeanor cases. The percent of the premium collected fell as the bond amount increased. For bonds of $50,000 or more, agents collected the full premium 27 percent of the time.
Is there profit in low-level cases?
The database does not specify if the charges are felonies or misdemeanors. So we did some reporting. Bail agents, sheriffs, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers told us that with very few exceptions, felony bonds begin at $5,000. That is also the suggested threshold in new court rules. There may be misdemeanor bond amounts set higher, especially when multiple charges are bundled in one bond. To be conservative, we divided the data into bonds of $5,000 or more and less than $5,000. Bonds below $5,000 — our threshold for low-level offenses — accounted for 77 percent of those written and 36 percent of the overall revenue.
Who is making the most money?
The three biggest bail companies, owned by Brian Corbett, Donald Pugh Sr. and Joshua Williams, each captured more than $2 million in revenue during the period.
How are the top earners doing it?
We wanted to determine how much business the state’s largest bail company, Corbett Bonding, had locked up in its home turf of northeastern Mississippi. More than half the bonds in the state’s electronic registry don’t record the county where they were issued. So we turned to the handwritten entries in jail dockets, large books in which sheriff deputies record the booking and release of every jail inmate. The dockets are public records, commonly used by local reporters to track arrests.
We created spreadsheets with the details of the 1,914 bail bonds written in 2017 at the Lee County Jail in Tupelo and the 698 bonds written at the Union County Jail in New Albany — both in Corbett’s territory. We found that Corbett Bonding wrote 83 percent of the bonds in Union County and 73 percent in Lee County, near monopoly numbers in jails where a dozen other bail companies competed for business. When we interviewed people who had paid a jail agent for release, we pulled court records to corroborate their accounts.
Are all bail agents the same?
We also noted that the company ID in the electronic database shows whether it was a “limited surety” or “personal surety” agent. That was nerdy but important. Limited surety companies hold about a quarter of the market and are backed by big insurance companies. Personal surety agents have the rest of the business. Those companies have a deal that would be the envy of Wall Street: They can write an unlimited number of bonds after staking just $30,000 with the state, meaning those companies take very little financial risk in a virtually guaranteed market.
All data is messy. What were the problems with this one?
The data had limitations. The registry does not record the race of the defendant. Bail agents describe charges not with specific statute numbers but with whatever words or abbreviations they choose, making that information difficult to analyze. For example, “shoplift” is entered 351 different ways, and that does not count the entries in which it is misspelled.
We considered spending weeks standardizing those offense names but ultimately decided that our analysis didn't require it. What was most important were not the names of the charges that people were jailed for, but how much they had to pay to get out.
There were also problems with how bail agents entered data, an issue the Department of Insurance noted in a 2017 report to the Legislature. In hundreds of cases, for example, bail agents reported collecting more money than the actual premium, often by a factor of 10 or 100, the sign of a misplaced decimal. In about half of the cases, the bail agent did not enter the county or court information, making a broad geographic analysis impossible. Some of those problems are beginning to be fixed.