On Tuesday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a grantee of Open Society Foundations, filed a class action lawsuit against an unlicensed bail bonds company operating in Baltimore. The lawsuit challenges 4 Aces Bail Bonds Incorporated’s unlawful and predatory practices, including collecting bail bond premiums without a license. Bail bond companies must be licensed in the state of Maryland in order to operate legally. The lawsuit also names as defendants the surety insurance companies that underwrite the company’s bail bonds, the law firm that files debt collections suits on its behalf, and the collections agency that collects its debt.
For the last year, the Lawyers’ Committee has partnered with the Coalition for a Safe and Just Maryland, a coalition first convened by Open Society Institute-Baltimore in 2016 to eliminate Maryland’s use of money bail and make the state’s pretrial justice system fairer and less discriminatory. Prior to a judicial rule change that the Coalition helped to get enacted last year, judges would routinely set high money bail amounts without considering a defendant’s ability to pay. This resulted in a two-tiered pretrial justice system, where those with money could frequently buy their way out of jail while those with fewer resources were more often left to sit in jail while awaiting trial. Research has shown that even if someone is innocent, just three days in jail is enough for a person to lose their housing, lose their job, and strain family connections. In Maryland, as elsewhere across the country, these harms disproportionately fall on communities of color. Now, as a result of the rule change, judges must consider a defendant’s financial situation if they wish to set money bail and not set bail amounts that are unaffordable.
While OSI-Baltimore continues to work toward further systemic bail reform, lawsuits such as this one highlight the ways in which the bail bonds industry unfairly profits off the suffering of low-income communities of color who are over-targeted by the criminal justice system. Last year, Common Cause Maryland found that our state ranked third highest in the nation for bail bond industry campaign contributions to state politicians. Keeping money out of the criminal justice system and eliminating the industries that profit from this suffering is an issue we can all get behind.