Look Who Is Making Billions From Criminalizing Minor Drug Offenders - A Special Fix Report  

By Seth Sandronsky and Michelle Renee Matisons 05/01/14

Why are so many drug possessors sent to prison rather than treatment? Consider the “prison-industrial” complex, including the bail bond industry, which lobbies for harsh penalties that increase the volume of those arrested and jailed. 


According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are 330,000 people in state or federal prisons nationwide for drug offenses. Just ask recovering drug user Daniel Romero, 41, of East Los Angeles about the toll incarceration has taken on him and the cost to the rest of us. He has 25 felony convictions. “My 19 years in court and behind bars cost maybe $2 million,” he said.

From his time spent in and out of the system, Romero knows bail and jail intimately. He also understands that both bail and jail are profit centers for others determined to keep the present “war on drugs” penalty system working to their financial advantage. 

One such profit center is the U.S. bail bond industry (BBI). The industry does $2 billion of business annually, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and Justice Policy Institute. That is real money, with chunks of it being made available via campaign donations and lobbying to shape criminal law policy and the votes of lawmakers. Tracking these political and commercial ties reveals what criminal justice rhetoric tries to conceal: 

The bail industry, along with other powerful forces such as prison guards and private prison companies, invests extensive resources in promoting legislation that leads to mass incarcerations. This is especially true for drug offenses that disproportionately harm nonwhite and poor communities. 

To the degree that the public is even minimally aware of how moneyed players in the prison-industrial complex push for extensive and harsh arrest laws, it is usually the private prison industry and prison guard unions that are pointed to as playing the lead roles in this nasty game. Job-protecting police unions and war-on-drug agencies play strong support roles. The role of bail bonders is virtually invisible to the public.    

But the BBI has grown into quite a political force over four decades even as their individual operations are largely obscured behind contrasting popular images of mom and pop bail bonds storefronts or less-than-friendly outlaw bounty hunters. Currently, it is pushing conservative legislation by courting politicians via bipartisan campaign donations and lobbying efforts. It also plays a visible role in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) - an influential right wing national group significantly funded by the oil magnate and far-right wing Koch Brothers. ALEC creates and then promotes “model legislation,” including, most famously, the controversial Stand Your Ground gun law and attacks on public employee unions. 

One dramatic example of recent BBI activity is in the realm of pretrial services. These services mitigate jail and prison overcrowding through pretrial release based on factors other than one’s ability to post money bail, such as a detainee’s offense record, drug history and employment status.  

The bail industry has targeted such “no-bail-required” practices for hammer blows along with other modern reforms. These reforms tend toward reducing drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors that require no bail and favor treatment rather than jail. Many experts and the public at large regard these reforms as more sensible and more effective.   

Other than the generalized and vast legalized political corruption and vote selling that results from the need to obtain campaign funds in America, there is no specific pattern that describes the many politicians who crash their own principles under bail industry pressures. These pols occupy the racial, ethnic, gender and regional spectrum. If you are stuck believing the paradigm that Democrats offer a progressive alternative to the drug war’s brutal mass incarceration policies - as opposed to Republican ideological commitment to being “tough on crime and drugs” - think again. In a time which demands alternatives to drug war decimation of nonwhite communities, many Democrats across the country line up alongside Republicans to collect, with California, Florida and Texas as the top three BBI donor states.   

Furthermore, in poor nonwhite districts that lack robust economic resources to support progressive change, we have historically seen a wedding of politicians’ campaign piggy banks to bail bonds industry interests. This keeps many nonwhite politicians beholden to the status quo and surprisingly opposing liberal reforms. Accordingly, communities most affected by the drug war lose a real place at the bail and prison alternatives table.  

In fact, voters are given mixed messages by the Dems' reform rhetoric which pushes watered-down initiatives that, in fact, continue status quo criminalizing, policing, arresting, detaining and bailing for often quite minor drug and parole violations.

This influencing BBI money flows from arrested individuals’ pockets, as detained drug offenders and others - often charged with minor crimes - scramble to make bail by any means necessary, even at the expense of their own family's security. Then, taxpayer dollars pay the bill for courts, jails, police and prisons. On that spending note, the Great Recession hammered local and state budgets and brought reform-minded attention to the so-called criminal justice system. But how much is really changing?  


California enjoys a liberal reputation, but it is unclear why when it comes to criminal justice issues. The state, for example, led the way in “three strikes and you do life without parole” legislation, now partially repealed because of its devastating effects on many lives. 

Consider that last November, Gov. Jerry Brown, Jr., a Democrat, vetoed an important bill, SB 649, initiated by the Drug Policy Alliance and introduced by Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF).  The bill, which was adamantly opposed by BBI as well as by elements of the pro three-strike complex of guards and prison-industry companies, would have allowed judges and prosecutors to reduce the criminal penalty for simple drug possession of small amounts from a felony to a drug “wobbler” (the choice of felony or misdemeanor charges, with prosecutor and court discretion). It would also have given judges and prosecutors discretionary authority to send defendants to treatment centers, probation or community service. 

“This bill would allow possession of heroin or cocaine to be charged as a misdemeanor instead of a felony,” Brown declared misleadingly in a veto message fully in accord with other strong support Brown has provided for prison-industrial complex issues over the last year as he goes into an election year determined to amass a campaign treasury that dwarfs competitors.  

Brown’s other stated reason for the veto was improper timing. Citing another bill making its way through the state legislature, Brown declared: “We are going to examine in detail California's criminal justice system, including the current sentencing structure.” Critics charged that Brown simply caved to law enforcement interests such as the BBI and punted the issue to a process whereby such interests would have more influence over final policy decisions. 

“The governor let down the people of California, the majority of whom support going even farther than this bill would have gone,” said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The vast majority of voters agree with the experts - locking up drug users is stupid, unproductive, cruel and expensive.” Later, in a phone interview with The Fix, she added:  “Up to 10,000 more people will serve time in state prisons this year.” 

(The Fix asked Brown spokesperson Daniela Dabel to comment on the bail amounts and bail fees these pretrial detainees face because of the Governor’s veto. Dabel declined to do so.)

As Michelle Alexander’s  bestselling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012), reports, in the drug war nine out of ten arrested drug offenders are black and Latino, far outstripping their number in the general populace where, percentage wise, studies have shown that more whites use more drugs more frequently than minorities. Further, felons do the time long after they do the crime; they face a lifelong fate of second-class citizenship. Depending on the state in which they reside, they are ineligible for a range of government help including food stamps, housing, student loans, temporary cash assistance and voting. Brown’s veto ensures that this year alone, 10,000 more people, disproportionately people of color, face some elements of this fate.

SB 649 was specifically designed to mitigate this racial – and racist - discrepancy. 

In California, Brown is hardly alone in protecting the industry. Recently convicted (for voter fraud and perjury) and then suspended State Senator Roderick Wright, an African-American, earlier accepted $3,000 from the BBI and introduced pro-BBI legislation that would increase the number of defendants applicable for bail if they applied to the court for an electronic monitoring program. In a conversation with The Fix, Maggie Kreins, president of the California Bail Agents ( CBAA) and herself a bail bonds company owner, said the CBAA supports Wright’s bill and opposes bills that reformers want that requires no-bail be posted for low-level defendants who accept monitoring. 

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