Privatized Law Enforcement

The New York Times has a fascinating article explaining how bail bondsmen are a uniquely American, quasi-private element of the criminal justice system:

…posting bail for people accused of crimes in exchange for a fee…is all but unknown in the rest of the world. In England, Canada and other countries, agreeing to pay a defendant’s bond in exchange for money is a crime akin to witness tampering or bribing a juror — a form of obstruction of justice. …Other countries almost universally reject and condemn Mr. Spath’s trade, in which defendants who are presumed innocent but cannot make bail on their own pay an outsider a nonrefundable fee for their freedom. “It’s a very American invention,” John Goldkamp, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, said of the commercial bail bond system. “It’s really the only place in the criminal justice system where a liberty decision is governed by a profit-making businessman who will or will not take your business.” …Bail is meant to make sure defendants show up for trial. It has ancient roots in English common law, which relied on sworn promises and on pledges of land or property from the defendants or their relatives to make sure they did not flee. America’s open frontier and entrepreneurial spirit injected an innovation into the process: by the early 1800s, private businesses were allowed to post bail in exchange for payments from the defendants and the promise that they would hunt down the defendants and return them if they failed to appear. …The system costs taxpayers nothing, Mr. Kreins said, and it is exceptionally effective at ensuring that defendants appear for court. …According to the Justice Department and academic studies, the clients of commercial bail bond agencies are more likely to appear for court in the first place and more likely to be captured if they flee than those released under other forms of supervision.

Libertarians sometimes get accused of being utopians because of occasional debates about the degree to which things such as roads, defense, and law enforcement can be handled by the private sector. But this article is a great introduction to a thought experiment: Imagine if America’s private bail system did not exist and one of Cato’s legal experts proposed privatization of whatever system the government had created instead. That proposal doubtlessly would be condemned as utopian, unrealistic, impractical, and unworkable. Fortunately, that impossible idea has been successfully in place for about two hundred years. Just something to keep in mind the next time a statist tells you that something only can be done by government.