Bounty hunters and bail bondsmen are active in much of the country. Bounty hunters track down fugitives who have posted bail guaranteed by a bondsman and who failed to appear for their court date, thus forfeiting their bail. However, this practice is illegal in Wisconsin. In fact, Wisconsin is one of only four states where the bail bonds industry is entirely prohibited. Historical precedents have show that bounty hunters from other states who have tried to take fugitives located in Wisconsin into custody without involving local law enforcement end up being arrested for kidnapping.
A Retrospective of Wisconsin’s Now Defunct Bail Bonds Industry
In 1979, the state of Wisconsin made compensating a surety illegal in WS 969.12, thus eliminating the commercial market for making bonds. Without this practice being legal, bounty hunters lost their grounds to operate in the state.
The argument for doing so was that the commercial bail bonding system has been a force of corruption. There have been cases throughout the country of bail bondsmen being in collusion with court officials and the police, resulting in kickbacks for guiding defendants to particular bondsmen.
It has also been argued that the practice of having bail bonds available commercially has resulted in low-income defendants who cannot afford the fees being denied the opportunity to be released on bail. According to Representative Fred Kessler of Wisconsin, the state’s jail populated declined by five to six percent after the ban of commercial bail bonding.
Several commercial bail bondsmen in Wisconsin appealed this law in 1980. In the case of Kahn v. McCormack 299 N.W.2d 279, the courts ruled against the plaintiffs and upheld the law. Legislators have twice tried to reinstate bounty hunting in Wisconsin, but as of 2013, they have been unsuccessful. The state’s Attorney General, J.B. Van Hollen, opposed such efforts in the most recent attempt.
Research on the Benefits of Bounty Hunters and the Bail Bonds Industry
As described in the Wilson Quarterly in 2011, two economists from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University analyzed what happened to over 36,000 felony defendants who were released on bail between 1988 and 1996. Alex Tabarrok and Eric Helland found the failure-to-appear rates to be:
- 28% lower for those released on commercial bail than for having been released on their own recognizance
- 18% lower than those released on government bonds
They also found that when the defendants had left their area, those pursued by bounty hunters were 50% more likely to have been returned to justice than defendants pursued by other types of investigators.
These economists also argued that there is a public benefit from the commercial bail bonds practice. The money from bonds that have been forfeited goes to the government. In federal cases, this helps to fund the Crime Victim Fund. Also, in some states, the money is used to fund public schools.