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Bail-bond industry suffers another blow as Facebook and Google ban ads

The tech giants are using their advertising power to push social causes

Google and Facebook, the world's most dominant online-advertising companies, will no longer take money from America's for-profit bail bond agencies, siding with a growing national movement to eliminate cash bail from the criminal justice system.

The two tech giants said this week that their decisions to block bail-bond ads were part of a broader effort to protect users from damaging or hurtful content. Typically, that strategy has focused on scams and deception. But that list has recently expanded to include guns, marijuana, payday loans, cryptocurrencies and, now, bail bonds.

David Graff, Google's senior director of global product policy, said in a statement on Monday that the company was persuaded by studies showing that bail bond agencies profited off poor and minority communities, where people who are arrested often must go into debt in order to post court-ordered bonds that guarantee their return for trial.

"We made this decision based on our commitment to protect our users from deceptive or harmful products, but the issue of bail bond reform has drawn support from a wide range of groups and organizations who have shared their work and perspectives with us," Graff wrote in a blog post.

He cited groups from both sides of the political spectrum as having influenced Google's decision, from Koch Industries to the Essie Justice Group, which advocates on issues affecting incarcerated women, and Color of Change, a civil rights group focused on issues affecting black Americans. Those groups and others were invited to a Google event in Washington on Tuesday to help focus attention on bail reform.

Monika Bickert, Facebook's vice president of global policy management, also reportedly said Monday that the company would stop taking ads from the bail bond industry.

“Advertising that is predatory doesn’t have a place on Facebook,” she was quoted as saying in a statement.

Facebook representatives did not respond to a request for further comment.

The bail bond industry responded with defiance.

Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, a trade association, dismissed the announcements as attempts to make the bail reform movement appear bigger than it actually is.

The ad bans won't affect bail bond agencies' bottom lines much, Clayton said, because their websites will still come up under "organic" web searches.

"They'll just have to change their search optimizations to compete with competitors," Clayton said.

But Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson said Monday's announcements could mark the start of something much bigger.

"We hope this decision encourages other corporations to take proactive steps to sever ties with the for-profit bail industry and end the incentives that fuel mass incarceration," Robinson said in a statement.

The movement to eliminate cash bail is driven by the argument that the system makes it harder for poor people to get out of jail while awaiting trial. That, the argument goes, makes them more likely to plead guilty and suffer the lifelong consequences of a criminal conviction. Several cities, counties and states have abolished cash bail, replacing it with systems that allow the release of most people accused of low-level offenses and the detention of those accused of the most serious crimes.

Those changes have hit the bail bond industry, putting agents and bounty hunters out of work.

They've fought reforms, saying they play an important role in the justice system by making sure the law isn't flouted and that dangerous suspects don't prey on more people.

Don Mescia, executive director of United Bail of America, an advocacy group for bail agents, said Google's announcement was "another example of the moral and ethical failings of the American society."

The reform advocates had a much different perspective.

"We won!" the Essie Justice Group announced in an email to supporters.

CORRECTION (May 8, 2018, 6:05 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article quoted a flier that contained incorrect information about the day that Google hosted an event in Washington focused on the issue of bail reform. The event occurred on Tuesday, not Monday.