As Bail Bond Reform Progresses, the Industry Finds New Means of Survival
By Liza Case
The U.S. is one of the only countries that uses a for-profit, private industry model to ensure people accused of a crime return to court. Criminal justice reformers have been campaigning for bail reform for many years, especially after such high profile cases as Kalief Browder, the young man who spent three years on Riker’s Island awaiting trial. While Mr. Browder was eventually cleared of all charges, he committed suicide shortly after being released.
Under bail bond reform, already in effect in many states, defendants with low-incomes who pose no flight risk are more likely to be released into pretrial services, which may include monitoring, or phone call reminders of upcoming court dates. On the federal level, Senators Harris and Paul recently co-sponsored The Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act to ensure that people are not held in jail “simply for being poor.”
In Pennsylvania, one former bondsman, Vincent J. Smith, whose family has been in the bail bonds business since Prohibition, saw himself soon likely having to close his doors. Seeking a new way to apply his knowledge and experience with the criminal justice system and provide a service for those accused of crimes, he decided to offer legal liability protection. He, along with his wife, Sheila, and their two daughters, Tiffany and Kaley, founded Legal Risk Services, Inc.
“Bail reform created an opportunity to bring a new product to market,” says Smith.
Presently, less than ten percent of Americans carry any type of legal insurance. The two products Legal Risk Services offers, bring new models of legal protection into the marketplace, one more akin to European models.
According to Antje Fedderke, RIAD Secretary General, the organization that oversees legal insurance in Europe: “In the U.S., legal protection exists predominantly as prepaid legal services or legal plans,” says. “The main differences [between American and European models] are that legal plans cover specific anticipated events, like drafting a will, while legal protection insurance covers unforeseen events.”
Legal Risk Services offers legal liability protection, similar to the European model Fedderke mentions, but protection that is specifically designed for individuals and companies who want to insure themselves against any future criminal, as opposed to civil, charges.
The company also offers a discount legal plan for those who have already been charged. Under the discount legal plan, once arrested (or served with papers in family law or certain aspects of immigration) an individual can join the plan, receive bail if needed, and be assigned an attorney best suited to handle the case. Smith has a nationwide network of lawyers who provide services at a discount to his members.
Herbert McDuffy, a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer who is a member of Smith’s network, says “I offer a discount to members of Legal Risk Services. It serves me because I am ensured of getting paid and don’t have to waste time on billing. I can focus on the law and helping the accused.”
Legal Risk Services charges an annual membership fee of $250, and 15 percent interest on the amount of the financing. They work with the defendant and the attorney to create a plan and set a fee, therefore members understand exactly how much they will be charged and aren’t surprised by unexpected billable hours. If the client is not happy with the lawyer, the company will work to find a more suitable representative.
Pat Monks, former president and current director of Group Legal Services Association (GLSA), an advocacy group for legal plans in the U.S., says, “Both of the products Legal Risk Services are offering are radically different from anything else on the market. The legal protection insurance will pay the entire cost of a criminal trial—that was previously unheard of. And while there are other discount legal plans available, I don’t know of anyone else offering financing.”
So, what effect do these products have on criminal justice and bail bond reform? Neither Southern Poverty Law Center nor The Pretrial Justice Institute responded to inquiries. One former public defender expressed concern that the indigent may end up going into debt they can’t manage and would be better served by the resources of the public defenders office.
Smith responded, “We require a guarantor. It doesn’t make sense for us to lend to people who can’t repay. The discount legal plan is designed for those who may not qualify for a public defender, but also may not be able to write a check to retain counsel.”
McDuffy concurred, “The public defenders are excellent, but they can’t serve everyone. And most Americans don’t have ten or fifteen thousand dollars put aside just in case a loved one gets arrested.”
Legal Risk Services also recently acquired Addiction Prevention Strategies, which specializes in pre-trial and court ordered drug-addiction treatment. “This gives the lawyer another tool to help a member facing DWI or drug charges end up in treatment instead of incarcerated,” says Smith.
Lawyers interested in joining the network, or individuals seeking legal liability protection or post-arrest coverage can learn more at www.legalliabilityprotection.com.