Jamie Zargo scanned the list of names posted outside Courtroom 2B in the Chittenden Superior Court. Seventeen people had been jailed over Independence Day weekend, including a boyfriend and girlfriend busted for allegedly dealing heroin and cocaine. But Zargo, who had driven from his home near Brattleboro looking for people to bail out, predicted that they'd all go free after their arraignments that morning — without his help.
"Watch how many people walk out this door," he said, sullenly.
Zargo's phone rings when people wind up in jail with insufficient cash to get out on their own. As a bail bond agent, the 42-year old former owner of a tree-trimming company carries out an under-the-radar — some say unsavory — role in the state's criminal justice system. In certain situations, entrepreneurs like him determine whether or not the accused stays behind bars until trial.
Lately, though, Zargo's been getting fewer calls, and he's not alone. A number of the 25 other people who are licensed to "write bail" in Vermont have noticed the same trend. Several factors — including lower crimes rates, cost containment and criminal justice reform — have reduced the number of criminal defendants seeking their services.
Eighteen months ago, nearly 500 people were being held in Vermont prisons while awaiting trial. On the morning of July 8, the count was 376.
That's good news, if you ask criminal justice reform advocates or state corrections commissioner Andy Pallito.
But it's bad news for bail bond agents, some of whom also function as bounty hunters when their clients disappear.
Vermont already has a strict statute that prevents an overly zealous approach to setting bail. That has kept the bail industry from becoming very robust here, according to David Cahill, executive director of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs' Association. In other states, signs of the service are everywhere.
Vermont agents tend to keep a lower profile, lurking in the back of courtrooms in search of clients. And other players in the legal realm tend to steer clear of them — cases of corrupt bail bond agents nationwide have given the industry a reputation for preying upon the poor. Some of the state's key criminal justice figures — Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), Defender General Matt Valerio, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan — claimed to know little about them.
But given the opportunity, Vermont's bail bond agents are eager to talk about their trade — and the threats it faces. Their challenges signal major changes brewing in the correctional system.
Vermont law lets judges set bail if they deem it necessary to ensure that a defendant will show up in court. They can order people imprisoned without bail only if the defendant poses a risk to the public or is facing charges that could carry a life sentence.
In most cases, people are released on "personal recognizance," meaning that the judge trusts them to come back on their own accord, without putting money on the line.
When judges do decide to use financial constraints, they have three options: unsecured appearance bonds, which require defendants to promise to pay the court a certain amount of money if they fail to show up; secured appearance bonds, which require them to deposit a refundable percentage of that money with the court; and surety bonds, commonly known as bail, which require defendants to deposit the entire sum of money, which they get back if they show up for their court dates.
Bill Burnett, 59, said he's observed a "tremendous increase" in the use of unsecured appearance bonds. The owner of Advantage Bail Bonds Vermont, who with 16 years under his belt claims to have been in business longer than any other local agent, maintains a modest office in South Burlington that also serves as his accounting practice.
In advance of an interview, he'd printed out several studies attesting to the efficacy of bail. During it, he argued that despite the industry's reputation, he performs an important service and operates strictly by the book. He described the bail bonds business as "probably the most misunderstood aspect of the criminal justice system."
In Vermont, agents must get a license every two years from the Department of Financial Regulation and the Office of the Court Administrator, which requires that they pass a test and prove that they have an insurance company providing financial backing.
A relative or friend of the defendant usually pays the agent a nonrefundable fee — the state sets it at 10 percent of the bail amount — and the agent posts a bond with the court, agreeing to pay the full amount if the person doesn't show up at court.
If someone leaves town, a bail bond agent will either personally track him or her down or hire a bounty hunter. With higher bails, agents often take collateral — if they can't retrieve the person and the court forfeits the bond, they might sell a person's vehicle or house to recoup the cost.
Jeffrey Stewart, 35, was working as a security guard and a private investigator when, in 2002, an acquaintance recruited him to find someone who had skipped bail. Now he works at Advantage, where he also writes bail. In his spare time, he works for a group he started called Paranormal Investigators of New England that looks into reported apparitions and haunted houses.
Stewart wears a gun on his hip but, like his boss, is keen to clear up misperceptions about the trade. "Everyone thinks we're gung-ho Rambo guys, but it's all up here," he said, tapping his head.
At Advantage, Burnett stressed, they don't bail just anyone out. He said he's more comfortable working with Vermonters because they are "easier to read" and less likely to run. He generally turns down requests from refugees because those communities tend to be so tight-knit; no one will talk if he's trying to find a defendant who has gone missing, he said. Another thing Burnett has learned: Girlfriends and boyfriends make unreliable indemnitors. He normally won't let them bail each other out.
Lately, though, the guys at Advantage have fewer opportunities to pick and choose. Stewart was at the Chittenden County court the same day as Zargo. They sat at the back of the courtroom together and, during a break, commiserated over the lack of business. At one point, Stewart had to leave to retrieve a man he'd bailed out over the weekend — for $500. Arrested for allegedly hitting his dog in the face and due in court that day for his arraignment, the man had wandered off by the time the judge reached his case.
Stewart found him downstairs berating the guards. When he returned, Zargo remarked on the bail amount, "I thought you guys didn't write 500s," he said to his competitor.
"We don't, usually," Stewart responded grimly.
Vermont bail bond agents say their client pool has dwindled to "the worst of the worst," as Burnett described it, and they think they know why: Gov. Peter Shumlin and the state legislature have been pressuring the courts to reduce the prison population, making judges less inclined to set bail.
Chief administrative judge Brian Grearson disputed that explanation. "I'm not aware of any judges feeling any political pressure," he said.
But others believe there's something to it.
"I'm not surprised to hear that," said Donovan. "Anecdotally, what I've seen has been a real effort not only by prosecutors but by the judiciary to limit the imposition of the bail." And, he added, "I'm not sure that's a bad thing."
According to Cahill, the cost of detaining people is especially high in Vermont because the state no longer operates local jails, which means pretrial detainees must be transported to regional prisons, where the cost per bed is greater.
Unprompted, Pallito did some off-the-cuff arithmetic, estimating that the reduction in detainees has saved the state roughly $2.5 million.
But there are other, higher-minded forces undercutting the bail industry.
Suzi Wizowaty, a former state representative and current executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, wants to start a "vigorous public discussion about bail in Vermont and ... whether or not it's penalizing poor people." Even a few days in prison, she argued, can cause people to lose their employment and housing. "If you're held in jail for an alleged crime that you have not been convicted of, your life can start unraveling around the edges," she said.
This conversation is unfolding across the country as part of a growing criminal justice reform movement. The United States is one of only two countries that use commercial bail. Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin have outlawed the practice, and other states are questioning it.
Last year, Jerome Murdough, a homeless and mentally ill man charged with trespassing, died in an sweltering jail cell at Rikers Island, N.Y., where he was being held because he couldn't make his $2,500 bail. Prompted by this and similar tragedies, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan earlier this month to release low-risk defendants under court supervision rather than hold them at Rikers for lack of bail. In a statement, de Blasio summarized the chief criticism of the system: "Money bail is a problem because, as the system currently operates in New York, some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose."
In Vermont, Cahill notes, "We don't see as many of the classic sob stories where someone is arrested for shoplifting ... and then held in pretrial detention for six months waiting for trial." But he thinks there's a discussion to be had — distinct from the financial one — about the human costs of locking people up.
Burnett said his bail bonds business isn't as action-packed as Hollywood portrays: Most of the work is interviewing potential clients, filling out paperwork and keeping tabs on the people they've bailed out. A good bail bond agent, he explained, must be able to judge a person's character and know when to steer clear of risky financial decisions.
But Burnett keeps a gun in his bag and another by his bed because things don't always go according to plan when dealing with desperate people who may have broken the law already. He confessed that the bail recovery (aka bounty hunting) part of the business — when clients go missing and must be retrieved — satisfies his "bad boy side."
Stewart, whose red beard and burly build make him look like a lumberjack, learned he had talents in that realm when he had to track down his own drug-addicted older brother, who had skipped bail and fled to Ohio. Asked about his investigative techniques, Stewart said, "Money talks." Relationships with local cops, who will occasionally run a license plate number for him, also come in handy, he said.
Like Stewart, Zargo, 42, got his start on the bail recovery side of the business. An avid deer hunter, he took to the job immediately. "I love hunting people," he said matter-of-factly. When none of the Vermont companies would hire Zargo as a bail bond agent, he started AAA Bail Bonds with a Connecticut-based business partner, Flavio Castrogiovanni.
Illegal in some states, bounty hunting is unregulated in Vermont, according to those who practice it. Seven Days reached out to Department of Financial Regulation, the secretary of state's office, which regulates 40 professions, and the attorney general's office but was unable to determine whether any government entity oversees this activity.
Zargo thinks that should change. He said the state should require bounty hunters to get licensed, noting that, as it stands now, "Any wannabe cowboy can run around with a gun."
Back in the courtroom that day, he approached a blond woman corralling several children and gave her his card. "You might need a bondsman," he suggested.
"I might not need anything," the woman retorted. "I'm the ex."
She was right. A little later, the judge decided not to impose bail on her former boyfriend — originally held for $10,000 and charged with dealing heroin and cocaine with his current girlfriend — because he didn't have a history of missing court dates and had ties to the community. Seven people showed up on his behalf.
"This is your one free card, so do the right thing," the judge advised as the man walked, unshackled, out of the courtroom.
Bail bond agents insist that when judges skimp on or bypass bail, it has implications beyond simply their bottom lines. Burnett said he was shocked when a judge released Omar Nassir, the Uber driver charged with sexually assaulting a passenger, without setting bail or an appearance bond. "He's looking at a potential life sentence!" Burnett said, suggesting that the man might flee.
"We're there to kind of babysit them," explained Steve Galente of Vermont Bail Bonds. Without that supervision, Galente, who has a salt-and-pepper goatee and spent more than 30 years in the military, said people are more likely to miss their court dates. And when that happens, it falls to law enforcement — and by extension, taxpayers — to retrieve people.
Some cops are frustrated, too. Asked for his thoughts on the state's bail system, Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby responded sarcastically, "You mean the catch-and-release program?" Colby said he regularly encounters repeat offenders, released on paltry amounts of bail, who commit additional crimes while awaiting court appearances.
Zargo fantasizes about organizing a boycott — "I would like to see every bail bondsman in the state not write bail and see how overcrowded the prisons get" — but he's concluded his colleagues are too competitive to make that work.
Typically, it's prosecutors who urge judges to set high bails or hold defendants without bail. But in Chittenden County, State's Attorney Donovan is the architect of a program that has likely contributed to the downturn in the bail bond business. Started several years ago, it diverts low-level offenders from the court system. Qualified candidates — selected through a risk assessment — can avoid criminal charges by getting treatment.
After successfully getting legislation passed last year, Shumlin's administration aims to duplicate Donovan's work in every county.
In Windham County, detainees have started wearing GPS devices on their ankles instead of awaiting their trial in prison. Previous efforts to implement this type of program have floundered, but Sheriff Keith Clark says the early results of his initiative are promising.
"I suspect those two programs are taking more people away from bail bondsmen than any other factor," Sen. Sears said. They may not like it, he continued, but "certainly for Vermont taxpayers, it's good news."
Defender general Valerio suggests his office is also fueling the trend: During the last several years, his lawyers have made a concerted effort to appeal bail decisions when they believe judges have erred in interpreting the statute. "We're probably doing at least one a week," he estimated. "In the vast majority of those cases, we win." That, he thinks, has helped clarify the law. "I can see how bail bondsmen could feel that there's a move away from bail, but in fact, it's a move toward the statute as it was originally intended," he said.
Pallito suggested lower crime rates could be a contributing factor. He said there were 3,000 more criminal filings per year a decade ago than there are today.
Donovan makes the case that moving away from bail might actually further reduce the crime rate, citing a study showing recidivism increasing among detainees who are held in jail, even if it's just for a few days. Furthermore, when people remain in prison because they can't make bail, they are more likely to take a plea deal simply because they want to get out, according to Donovan.
While he credits judges with making "tough" and "courageous" decisions, Donovan still thinks the process for determining whether someone should have bail set is arbitrary and subject to "strong personalities" that vary county by county.
Typically, a judge will be more inclined to set bail when a person has a history of failing to make their court dates. But those rap sheets, Donovan argues, don't offer the "full story" about what's causing people to act delinquently. "It's almost counterintuitive that we expect people who are severely mentally ill and severely addicted to drugs to be law abiding citizens and show up in court," he said.
His proposal: Use the evidence-based risk assessments that his pre-charge program adopted to determine what course of action is appropriate for each individual. "Let's let science tell us if there is a flight risk," he said.
Public safety commissioner Keith Flynn, who also happens to be a former prosecutor, puts that in human terms. Flynn said it's important to distinguish between a defendant who might skip town and someone "who lives down the road" and has trouble keeping court dates. In the latter case, "Chances are law enforcement knows where that person lives."
The bail bond business may be endangered in Vermont, but no one here is calling for its extinction. Wizowaty came the closest, suggesting, "I'm not sure a truly fair and equitable system would include bail bondsmen." Others, including Donovan and Valerio, conceded that bail bond agents remain a necessary part of the criminal justice system.
In fact, Vermont is still attracting new agents. Connecticut bondsman Damien Speranza expanded his EZ Out Bail Bonds business to Vermont last July. Unlike the other agents interviewed for this story, he sees the state as an untapped market. "Connecticut has a lot of hungry bondsmen," he said, whereas "Vermont is not saturated." Speranza, whose fiancée is from Vermont, has hired six of her relatives and friends and plans to keep growing. He co-owns the company with three other people, including Castrogiovanni's brother. The amiable ex-bouncer also has ambitious plans to publicize his business by putting on concerts and distributing merchandise. He pulled up a mock-up of a maternity shirt he designed for a friend — the tagline read, "We hope your baby is an EZ Out."
When Burnett's two sons were in college, they worked for their father, writing bail and tracking down people who had "skipped." Stewart sometimes brings his wife along when he's tracking down female defendants. But the father of three children is hoping it doesn't become a family franchise. "I honestly would prefer for them to get into something else ... something a little safer and financially better," he said.
That's sound advice if you ask lawmakers who are keen to further winnow the state's prison population. "I imagine," said Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), a defense lawyer who sits on the judiciary committee, "if I was a bail bondsman, I would be worried about my livelihood."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Skipping Bail"