Bad Boys Bail Bonds advertises outside the Oakland Police Department's headquarters in downtown Oakland. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

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When Kiara Caldwell answered her phone on June 21, 2018, an unfamiliar man’s voice told her that her best friend, Dareauna Chambers, had been arrested on a shoplifting charge and needed to be bailed out of jail. The man said he was from Bad Boys Bail Bonds, and that his company could put up the full bail amount if she paid them $1,000. 

Caldwell didn’t have access to that much money, so the man told her that for half that amount, Bad Boys would finance the rest if she signed some paperwork. Well aware that Chambers had few friends or family members to rely on, Caldwell withdrew $500 in cash from an ATM, drove to Bad Boys’ Oakland office, and handed it over.

The interaction, which Caldwell described as “rushed and pressured,” lasted only a few minutes, but it put her in a tough financial situation that has lasted several years. According to Caldwell, when she signed a small stack of contracts, at no point did the bail bond agent inform her that she would owe $4,500, due in monthly installments, and that she was now liable for the full bail bond amount if her friend didn’t appear in court—a sum that amounted to $50,000.

At the time, she was attending Chabot College in Hayward and scraping by as a security guard. “I told them, ‘I’m not making a lot of money,’” she said.

Caldwell had trouble paying the monthly installments and missed some. For nearly three months, Bad Boys repeatedly called her, her mother, and her employer. The calls became so frequent that she changed her phone number in the hopes that it would deter them from contacting her. But the company continued calling. 

Shortly after changing her number, Caldwell says that Bad Boys representatives started coming to her parents’ home in an attempt to serve a lawsuit against her for the debt. Concerned about Bad Boys jeopardizing her job and inflicting further stress on her parents, she sought help from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, a non-profit legal assistance group. 

In October 2019, Bad Boys filed a lawsuit against Caldwell, alleging she breached her contract with the company by not repaying the debt. Caldwell filed a counter-lawsuit a year later, alleging that the company knowingly misled her and numerous other low-income people about the financial contracts they were signing.

Caldwell’s counter-lawsuit is still pending in Alameda County Superior Court, but in April a judge made a ruling in her case that temporarily stopped Bad Boys from trying to collect millions of dollars from people like her. The bail bond company has appealed the decision and is still seeking its money, and the appeals court allowed Bad Boys to resume its debt collection efforts. The case has become a significant part of a much bigger campaign by some low-income Californians to reform and even abolish the bail industry.

Paying money to get out of jail—an increasingly controversial practice

Cash bail is a contentious subject. The practice of paying money to secure someone’s release from jail before a criminal trial has its origins in medieval Europe and was brought to the United States by the colonists. California has used the bail system since the state was founded in 1850.

In the 1960s and 1970s, judges, attorneys, and criminal law experts began to debate the purpose of bail, and over the past 20 years the practice has come under increasing scrutiny. Critics view bail as a financially burdensome institution that exploits the most vulnerable and impoverished communities while allowing the wealthy to buy their freedom. The bail industry has defended the use of bail as a means of ensuring defendants appear for trial while allowing people a means of getting out of jail.

In 2018, then Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 10, a law that would have eliminated cash bail in California. Had the law gone into effect, starting 2019 people arrested on most misdemeanor charges would have been released without bail, and judges would use a risk assessment system to determine whether to release others charged with more serious crimes. But the $2 billion bail industry acted fast and qualified a veto referendum, which put the issue to the voters. It also delayed the law from going into effect until after the November 2020 election. Some civil liberties and racial justice groups also did not support SB 10 because of concerns about whether the new risk assessment tools used to determine whether a person is let out of jail reproduce or worsen existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Voters chose to reject SB 10, giving life to the bail industry.

Most recently, in March of this year, the California Supreme Court eliminated cash bail for defendants who can’t afford it. The justices wrote in their decision that “conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional.” Judges can still impose bail on defendants, but it has to be an amount they can afford to pay in most cases.

Despite this, many Californian’s still have to pay bail, and the median amount is set at $50,000, the highest in the country. Few people have access to sums of cash this large and can’t even pay the 10% premiums to bail bonds companies, even with financial support from friends and family. 

Millions in hard-to-pay debt

Bail bonds company offices are located across 7th Street from the Oakland Police Department’s headquarters in downtown Oakland.

According to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Bad Boys Bail Bonds has issued 18,000 bail bond contracts similar to the one Caldwell signed since 2017, totaling $34.5 million in consumer debt. The group alleges that, in most cases, cosigners on these contracts—who are usually friends and family members—are misled regarding how much money they will actually owe. After paying a lump sum to get their loved ones out of jail, they find themselves owing thousands more. Bad Boys and other bail bonds companies will then track down cosigners who fail to pay, pressuring them, and in some cases filing lawsuits.

Representatives from Bad Boys Bail Bonds Oakland office declined to be interviewed for this story.

Oakland resident Donzahniya Pitre, who joined Caldwell’s class action case, said that she experienced abusive debt collection practices from Bad Boys after bailing out her brother.

“They just harassed us,” she said. Her brother, who struggled with a medical condition and had to show up to work, simply could not afford to be in jail.  Accused of stealing, it was his first time incarcerated. “It was scary for us. We were all in a vulnerable state,” Pitre said.

After handing over her rent money to Bad Boys Bail Bonds, setting up a payment plan for her brother, and taking out a cash loan of $3,000, Pitre said that company representatives called her every day, leaving voicemails and threatening to sue her.

Rio Scharf, who runs a decriminalization clinic at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights San Francisco, said that this is common practice among bail bondsmen. They’ll contact his clients’ employers, call them late at night and early in the morning, and make threats that co-signers and defendants will be incarcerated if they fail to pay back the debt. Scharf also says that bail is the highest in California: They estimate that in order to secure someone’s release, the average premium is $5,000.

“It’s an exploitative industry, and it’s done nothing to advance society,” said Scharf. “It’s a reflection of the devaluation of the lives and dignity of people who are incarcerated and engaged in the criminal legal system.” 

In April, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman issued a preliminary injunction in the Caldwell case, ordering Bad Boys to temporarily cease collecting debts from bail co-signers. The company is also required to provide all new co-signers with notices that comply with California’s consumer credit contracts, paperwork that explains clearly what a person is agreeing to when they sign bail agreements. 

Bad Boys appealed Judge Seligman’s decision to stop collecting debts and the state 1st Appellate District Court is considering whether to uphold the injunction, or allow the company to resume its debt collection practices. The appeals court also decided to let the bail bond company continue collecting debts until they issue a decision.

Scharf says that this lawsuit has significant implications for low-income residents in Oakland and California and that the injunction will protect many of the people who signed bail contracts from further harm during a draining, drawn-out legal process.

Caldwell, too, is optimistic that the lawsuit could lead to changes that will protect friends and family members from bail bondsmen, who she says “prey” on them. 

But Oaklanders like Pitre still haven’t recovered from their financial spiral. The $3,000 cash loan that she took out a year ago damaged her credit, preventing her from being able to buy a house. 

“I’m still in the process of getting that paid off,” she said.

Correction: the temporary injunction preventing Bad Boys Bail Bonds from collecting debts was stayed by the appeals court, allowing the company to resume collections.