Every year, thousands of people booked into San Francisco’s jails are freed on bail provided to them by a handful of companies whose customers are nearly as sure a thing as frost in winter.
Their colorful signs can’t be ignored walking down the gray steps of the Hall of Justice. Just across Bryant Street’s five lanes of traffic, they dominate a two-block stretch — New Century, Aladdin, Al Graf, Ellis Jones and Ballestrase, to name a few.
It’s hard to imagine that business ever drops for companies sitting across from the The City’s busy criminal courts, which provide agents with daily customers.
But there actually is a slump of sorts in The City’s bail bond industry. The culprit: Proposition 47, the law that District Attorney George Gascon — whose office has a direct view of the bail bond companies along Bryant Street — helped write.
It’s been more than a year since California voters passed the measure, which reduces minor drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors and requires misdemeanor sentencing for thefts worth less than is $950.
In that time, bail bond companies statewide say their industry has seen a 30 to 40 percent drop in bail bonds because of the state law.
“It’s statewide,” said Maggie Kreins, a bail bond agent out of Long Beach and vice president of the California Bail Agents Association.
But not everyone is shedding tears for the industry.
“Prop. 47 may be a loss for the bail bonds industry, but it is a win for taxpayers and citizens,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “Reducing the severity of nonviolent offenses like drug possession saves millions in jail costs. And it relieves people of having to go into debt to a bail bondsman or plead guilty just to be released.”
Still, for Krein’s 3,200 members, the change has meant agents are writing fewer bonds each month.
Misdemeanor bonds for drug and minor thefts used to be the “bread and butter” of their industry, but now agents who used to write 30 to 40 bonds a month are writing two.
They are staying afloat since the business that does remain is for more serious charges and much higher bail amounts, Kreins said.
That means far fewer bonds written for some charged with a simple marijuana possession, which in San Francisco has a bail of $5,000. That leaves the industry with suspects charged with crimes such as shooting from a moving car, which has a bail of $150,000.
For Tony Suggs, who owns Castle Bail Bonds in Richmond and works throughout the Bay Area, the drop in business is in part due to Prop. 47, but it also depends on jurisdiction. For instance, in Alameda County, those charged with crimes that fall under Prop. 47 still have bails set for them.
In San Francisco, there are far more cite-and-release cases.
“They were releasing more people anyways, but there was still a lot more bail being written in San Francisco before Prop 47,” Suggs said. “I think they are really implementing Prop. 47 more than other counties. The county of San Francisco is really pushing for releasing people or in some cases just dropping charges.”
In some cases, Suggs said, police make arrests but then the suspects arrested are released from jail immediately, so they don’t need bail. That means less business for Suggs and his colleagues.
But not all is doom and gloom for the industry.
In fact, Kreins sees a turnaround on the horizon.
“I predict the pendulum is gonna swing back the other way,” she said.
All of the people who are now being cited and released are bound to start racking up warrants for failing to appear in court for the citations, Kreins said. That means, sooner or later, they are going to get arrested.
And that means they will need bail.
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