Petty Charges, Princely Profits
Marshall Project reporter Joseph Neff obtained data offering a rare glimpse into how private companies profit from the steady march of low-level offenders into Mississippi jails.
Over 18 recent months, this industry took in $43 million, with 36% of revenues generated from small bonds in a state where the average income is under $22k. Corbett Bonding, the largest company and a major focus on this story, has a troubling cozy relationship with jails and courts in the state. Read the original report here.
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A wide array of criminal charges send people to jail in northeastern Mississippi: the familiar DUI or robbery, or the less expected, such as public profanity or possession of beer in a dry county. But no matter the charge, odds are that if you land in lockup here, you will buy your freedom from Corbett Bonding.
Brian Corbett has sewn up the bail bond trade in this largely rural corner of the nation’s poorest state, minting millions from people charged with minor offenses. Operating out of a Tupelo storefront behind the county jail complex, Corbett Bonding pocketed $2.6 million in fees over a recent span of 18 months — 46 percent on bonds of less than $5,000, the ceiling for most misdemeanors in the state.
It was the highest take in Mississippi, according to a Marshall Project analysis of bonds tracked by the state Department of Insurance.
It is difficult to peer into the financial workings of the bail industry, where public sector services are performed by private companies largely shielded from scrutiny. New data collected by Mississippi and obtained by The Marshall Project offers a rare glimpse into how bail companies profit from the steady march of low-level offenders into county jails. Corbett Bonding is one of 193 bail companies in the state that over 18 months collectively took in $43 million — 36 percent from small bonds — in a state where the average annual income is under $22,000.
There are 193 bail companies in Mississippi. In 18 months, these companies took in
$43 million in fees
36%from small bonds
Corbett Bonding operates in 11 Mississippi counties. Over the same period of time, it took in
$2.6 million in fees
46%from small bonds
Corbett, the owner, declined repeated requests for comment. If he split the proceeds 50-50 with his agents, the common practice in Mississippi, he made $1.3 million in 18 months. Over the years, this high-volume churn has helped finance his expansion into other ventures, including a private probation firm, a trucking company, and Wackem and Stackem Outdoors, an outfit that offers semi-guided hunting tours specializing in whitetail deer.
But this lucrative trade in petty charges may be coming to an end. A little-noticed but seismic change in state court rules last year — bolstered by lawsuits and a blunt-spoken state insurance commissioner — is making it easier for people charged with misdemeanors to leave jail earlier, or avoid it altogether, without securing a bond.
It is a striking shift in a state that has long been one of the friendliest places in the nation for the bail bond industry.
“The way we’ve been doing business for the past 50, 60 years changed overnight,” said Todd Kemp, sheriff of Clarke County and past president of the Mississippi Sheriffs Association. “It’s almost putting them out of business.”
The fortress around Mississippi’s bail industry began to show cracks in 2015. Equal Justice Under Law, a fledgling nonprofit started by two young Harvard alums, teamed up with Cliff Johnson, director of the University of Mississippi’s recently formed MacArthur Justice Center, to sue the Gulf Coast city of Moss Point.
The lawsuit aimed at the city’s bail schedule, a 62-page menu that set bond amounts for an exhaustive list of traffic offenses and misdemeanors: a $300 bond for keeping a pig, $350 for failure to stop at a railroad crossing, $400 for possession of tobacco by a minor, up to $2,200 for keeping a vicious dog.
People charged with these offenses had to pay up or remain in jail, waiting up to a week before seeing a judge. In effect, the lawsuit argued, the schedule created an unconstitutional debtors’ prison. Five months later, the city settled and agreed to end the use of money bail in misdemeanor cases. Jackson, the state capital and largest city, reached a similar settlement in June 2016. The city of Corinth in northeastern Mississippi settled a similar lawsuit July 6.
Similar lawsuits had been successful around the country, but the piecemeal approach wasn’t sustainable. Mississippi has 82 counties and 250-plus municipalities. “We can’t sue every one of them,” Johnson said.
Plodding along in the background, however, was a threat so obscure the bail industry never noticed. The Mississippi Supreme Court created a committee in 2004 to draft the state’s first uniform Rules of Criminal Procedure. Thirteen years later, in July 2017, it released a list of changes that have the potential to end cash bail in most misdemeanor and many low-level felony cases.
The new rules established the right to see a judge within 48 hours after arrest, relieving pressure to turn to a bail agent to buy freedom more quickly.
Cash bail is no longer the default option, and bail schedules have been banned. If a person is not a flight risk or danger to the community, the judge must release them on a written promise to appear or to pay money to the court if they fail to show up. Cash bail will continue for those wanting out of jail immediately, or those charged with most felonies.
On paper, it looks revolutionary. Kemp, the sheriff in Clarke County, said the rules have cut his jail population in half, making it safer and easier to manage, and saving him money on food and health care.
“It’s taken a while for us to get the feel of it. We’ve had class after class after class to school our employees. So far things are working out,” Kemp said.
Whether judges are complying statewide is unknown. The state’s hundreds of justice and municipal courts operate largely in independent venues in rural corners of the state. There is no statewide digital record system.
“I don’t think it has had too much impact yet,” said Associate Supreme Court Justice Jim Kitchens, a former district attorney and defense lawyer who is a leading advocate of the rule changes. He predicted justice courts — where a high school diploma is the only requirement to be elected to the bench — will be slow to adopt the rules.
The insurance data shows a modest but steady decline: the number of bonds written fell 19 percent in the first nine months of the new rules compared to the same period before. Revenue collected at the time of release fell 16 percent.
The rule changes caught the bail industry off guard. The Mississippi Bail Agents Association, which represents personal surety agents, declined to comment. (Corbett sits on the board of the association.)
In September, the group’s president, Chris Williams, likened the plight of bail agents to the citizens of Houston as Hurricane Harvey rolled through. “The intensity to eliminate our profession has reached a fever pitch,” Williams wrote his members. He cited the lawsuits and the new rules.
“The bail industry’s adversaries have dishonestly criticized, demonized and politicized our profession. How will the battered bail agents of MS react?” he asked, and then cited John 16:33’s call for courage in troubled times. “We should pray for our industry. We should pray for MBAA and our board of directors to act with peace and courage.”
The bail lobby did not rely on prayer alone. They hired three lobbyists from the law firm of former Gov. Haley Barbour. One lobbyist is the daughter of U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker.
Before the legislature convened in January, Williams mailed letters to 61 lawmakers detailing their legislative agenda and concerns about “the increasing pressure to release arrestees without secured bond.” Williams wished the lawmakers a Merry Christmas and included checks for campaign contributions from $250 up to $1,000.
Despite the money and lobbying firepower, the Mississippi bail industry failed to pass a single measure.
During his 15 years in the Mississippi legislature, Mike Chaney voted for bills backed by the bail industry, votes that came easy to a pro-business Republican. After he was elected commissioner of insurance in 2007, Chaney began an on-the-job education that made him rethink his support.
“It’s the most rotten system in the United States, the bail system,” Chaney said.
Equal Justice Under Law applauds The Marshall Project on such excellent reporting and is a proud supporter of their efforts to expose corruption in the criminal justice system.
Produced by the Marshall Project By Joseph Neff