Forfeiture in California: a $150 Million Dollar Question

Numerous articles over the years have thrown around a particular number– $150 million – the supposed amount of unpaid bail money owed to the state of California by various bail bonds companies. NPR reported, without attribution, that California bondsmen “owe counties $150 million that they should have had to pay when their clients failed to show up for court.” As it turns out, this number possibly represents the estimated amount of unpaid bail owed to Los Angeles County over a period of about 4 to 5 years according to one lawyer from an LA Times story published over a decade ago. The true amount of money owed to California counties is unknown, difficult to discover, and is possibly much more than $150 million. A lack of a concrete source or data for this figure reveals that it is speculative and unsubstantiated at best, and totally inaccurate at worst. A search for the figure on WestLaw in the context of California bail forfeitures yielded nothing. Preliminary research has also shown that the forfeiture processes used by counties to get the money owed to them are complicated and time consuming, which gives bonds companies an incentive to stall with litigation until the county essentially gives up. The LA Times article mentions this is as well as an eventually failed senate bill that sought to require the bond agency to place the bail money in escrow prior to a defendant’s release. What began as a simple search to fact-check a number has revealed a long-running controversy around the efficacy of counties securing bail money that is statutorily owed to them by bail companies when their client’s skip a hearing or proceeding.

I plan to contact and study particular counties – at least the most populous 10 – to find out how each county goes after the money it’s owed and whether or not each county knows how much it’s owed. This research will provide information and data that can inform policy decisions regarding the efficacy of money bail in California at the county level.

My name is Sean Reichhold and I am a 2L at Santa Clara Law. I’m a Bay Area native whose legal interests include criminal advocacy, policy, individual liberties. I’m also a trained journalist who loves research and debate.