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Civil rights groups want to put bail bond industry on death row

The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups announced Wednesday that they would mount an attack on the bail bond industry in hopes of eliminating it.

A team of civil rights groups said Wednesday they were launching a multifront crusade against the bail bond industry, which has emerged as their biggest opponent in a movement to end America's reliance on cash bail.

"We want to put an end to the for-profit bail industry in the U.S.," said Udi Ofer, deputy national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The effort relies on what Ofer described as a "public opposition campaign" aimed at turning voters and lawmakers against forces trying to preserve the centuries-old bail system, which reformers say preys on the poor and fuels mass incarceration.

Related: How New Jersey uses an algorithm to eliminate bail

Ofer and members of two similarly minded organizations, Color of Change and JustLeadership USA, outlined their plans in a call with reporters on Wednesday. They said they planned to "expose" the bail bond industry's profiteering from the system and its attempts to influence lawmakers; distribute petitions calling on lawmakers to resist such lobbying; hold "community forums" and explore the possibility of filing lawsuits against the industry.

"What we're seeing now is an evolution of the movement," Ofer said in an interview. "It's a product of the fact that the for-profit bail industry has been the primary opposition to bail reform."

Image: A man walks by a bail bonds store on Oct. 20, 2011 in Reading, Pennsylvania.
A man walks by a bail bonds store on Oct. 20, 2011 in Reading, Pennsylvania.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

Related: Bail ‘disrupters’ have a plan to free thousands from jails

Through legislation, lawsuits and judicial orders, the reformers have racked up a series of wins across the country, persuading local and state governments to replace bail with alternatives that focus on keeping only the most dangerous people locked up before trial. Many jurisdictions have started using algorithm-based risk assessment tools that help judges determine who should be detained.

Alaska this month enacted a system that forgos bail. And on Wednesday, New York City's comptroller called for a ban on commercial bail bonds.

Bail bond industry representatives, and individual bondsmen, say they perform an essential public service by helping to make sure defendants show up for court. They've argued that eliminating bail endangers the public, costs taxpayers money and violates constitutional guarantees of bail.

As the reform movement has gained traction, the bail bond industry, backed by big insurance companies, has stepped up to resist it. Facing slow extinction, the industry has backed two federal lawsuits in New Jersey, which last year all but eliminated bail. It has sued the New Mexico Supreme Court over new bail rules. It has defended itself against changes in Maryland. It has stepped into legal fights over bail in several big cities, including Houston, San Francisco and New Orleans. And it is backing candidates who it sees as potential allies.

Image: A man poses with a sign at a a recent bail reform vote in New Orleans.
A man poses with a sign at a a recent bail reform vote in New Orleans.ACLU

"We have friends in the legislature who understand and appreciate our important role in the criminal justice system BUT we have to insure that they get re-elected in order to be there to help us in the future," the Texas Bail PAC says on its website.

Related: Bail reform movement gets powerful ally: California’s top judge

Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Association, which represents bail-bond companies, pointed out that many places that have eliminated bail have also allowed prosecutors to ask that certain defendants — those deemed the most dangerous or likely to flee — be detained before trial without a chance of release.

"If you think you're going to reduce mass incarceration you're sorely mistaken, because you're giving the government the power of preventative detention," Clayton said in an interview.

He also argued that there are effective ways to reduce prison populations that have little to do with bail, such as reducing the number of offenses that carry the presumption of arrest.

"They're attacking the wrong problem," Clayton said of the reformers.

Clayton said he saw California, Ohio, Florida, New York and Delaware as the biggest battlegrounds this year.

"I don’t feel any more threatened because someone’s starting another campaign," he said. "What more can they do to you than what they’re doing right now?”