Late in June, the mulleted reality TV personality who goes by the name “Dog the Bounty Hunter” was in Trenton, chasing an elusive quarry.
This time, Dog, also known as Hawaii resident Duane Chapman, did not capture his man. He was in the state to confront Governor Chris Christie and pressure him to reverse New Jersey’s bail reform bill, which took effect in January and has all but eliminated the bail bondsman business.
Rebuffed by the governor, who told a talk show host he had no intention of being in the same room as Chapman, Dog settled for appearing at the State House. Clad in wraparound shades, Dog scolded lawmakers for wrecking the more than 100-year-old industry that allows people like him to make a living chasing criminal defendants who skip bail.
“We’re here to enlighten the senators and powers that be that the law that they passed six months ago is actually taking lives, and the criminals are winning the fight,” Dog said, claiming without evidence that criminals are moving to New Jersey from other states because the new system is so lax.
The idea of bail is an old one, going back as long as there have been courts. When a person is accused of a crime, judges would order them held in jail until trial, or they would allow the accused to give the court something valuable, usually money, as a guarantee that they would return to face justice. After the trial, the accused gets his money back.
The modern bail bondsman business was invented in 1898 in San Francisco. When a defendant cannot afford to post bail, they can go to a bail bondsman, who then pays the bail to the court. The defendant gives about 10 percent of this amount as a fee to the bail bondsman. If the defendant flees, the court keeps the money and the bail bondsman, not the defendant, is the one on the hook. That’s when the bondsman dispatches someone like Dog the Bounty Hunter to go find the accused criminal and haul him back to court.
Bail bondsmen argue that this system, still used in many states, has its advantages. In theory it holds defendants accountable while not tying down police or sheriffs with the task of rounding defendants up for court dates. And according to bail bond industry sources, bail bondsmen employed about 3,000 people in New Jersey between bondsmen, bounty hunters, and support staff.
At its height the bail bond business was a small industry in Trenton, with a row of storefronts such as Bandit Bail Bonds and ABC Bail Bonds (based in Pennsylvania) setting up shop across from the county courthouse and elsewhere in Trenton. Derek Nalbone, a Trenton bail bondsman who owned Capital City Bail Bonds on Hamilton Avenue, says that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he would post $500,000 to $1 million in bail every year.
But the bail system also had its disadvantages. Critics said it left the wealthy relatively unscathed while unfairly punishing people who were too poor to afford bail. And often it was the defendants’ families, not the defendants, who were posting bail and paying bondsmen fees, and thereby being punished for crimes they did not commit.
Lawmakers and Governor Christie found the latter argument persuasive, and in January a new system went into effect. Bail remains in effect for serious crimes, but for the relatively minor offenses that make up the bulk of criminal cases, judges now simply evaluate how much of a flight risk the defendants are and either hold them in jail, release them into the community, or release them to be monitored by law enforcement.
As a result, the amount of business for bail bondsmen has dwindled to next to nothing, leaving Trenton’s small bail industry suffering.
Nalbone says he has been in the business for about 20 years. He grew up in Trenton, where his mother owned a beauty shop. After graduating from high school, he got a job tending bar while studying telecommunications at Mercer County Community College.
In his early 20s Nalbone saw an ad for a bail bondsman job that only required the applicant to have his or her own car. He got the job and found that he loved the work, and left after a few years to start his own business.
Nalbone closed Capital City Bail Bonds down in 2015 when he saw the bail reform movement gaining steam. Now he is still a registered bail bondsman, but has not done much business lately. Nalbone is transitioning into real estate since bail bonds are drying up.
Currently, he says, there are only about 10 to 15 bonds per day for the entire state and its 700 or more registered bail bondsmen. He says many people he knows have left the business completely, while others are sticking around to collect money that was owed to them before the bail reform took effect.
Despite the current state of the business, Nalbone is holding out hope that it could come back. He recently renewed his bail bondsman license, despite only doing a few hundred dollars of business this year.
The bond industry is fighting back against bail reforms with the help of a Dallas Cowboys fan who got into a bar brawl.
In late June the industry filed a class-action lawsuit against the bail revisions. A Maryland company that does business in New Jersey has filed a federal lawsuit against the state, arguing that the eighth amendment of the constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail, gives defendants the right to post bail.
The test case is that of Britton Holland of Camden County, a 32-year-old who was accused of assault after allegedly getting into a fight at Joe’s Tavern in Winslow Township in April. Holland is accused of arguing with another patron over Dallas’ football rival, the Philadelphia Eagles, in a fight that got violent, leaving the other man with broken facial bones.
Under the old system, Holland would likely be out on bail. Instead, the judge ordered him detained at home, with an ankle monitor. The lawsuit seeks to overturn the bail reform law because Holland and other defendants are entitled to bail as an alternative, and that being tracked by a bracelet is a “modern-day scarlet letter.”
Nalbone and other bail bondsmen hope that the bail system will return to its old ways.
“The new system is bad for society,” he says. “It’s bad for the taxpayers. It was good system and I don’t know why they felt they had to change it.”