In the wild West they were known as bounty hunters those individuals who chose the dangerous profession of bringing in criminals for a price. Steve McQueen played one for three seasons in the popular TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive and Clint Eastwood began his career as one in an early spaghetti Western. The recent reality TV phenomenon has earned some real bounty hunters notoriety, such as Duane Dog Chapman, star of Dog the Bounty Hunter.
In the 21st century, the term bounty hunter is no longer as politically correct as it once was. Those in the profession now are often called fugitive recovery agents, fugitive apprehensive agents, skip tracer professionals and in Virginia, bail enforcement agents.
One of the first places to seek a bounty hunter in the commonwealth is The Fugitive Recovery Network (They Can Run, But They Cannot Hide). There you will find a short list of agents in Virginia, as well as their contact phone numbers and e-mail addresses. They are scattered across the state from Alexandria to Virginia Beach and Stafford to the Peninsula. A few even post their Wanted List and mark their successes with a Captured In Custody tag across the photos of their closed cases. A state study in 2002 found there were 34,233 bail bondsmen registered in Virginia. Since most either act as bail enforcement agents or hire them that is a clue to the number of such professionals in Virginia.
Because bail is considered a type of insurance, bail bondsmen must be registered in the state, but until 2005 bail recovery agents were not regulated. Now the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services publishes a 23-page document, “Regulations Relating to Bail Enforcement Agents,” which covers such areas as licensing procedures, compulsory minimum training standards, reporting standards, etc. To become a bond recovery agent in Virginia you must: (1) be a minimum of 21 years of age; (2) be a U.S. citizen or legal resident alien; (3) have a high school education; (4) have completed all the initial training requirements.
The basic entry-level curriculum required of bail enforcement agents in Virginia includes ethics, law, bail enforcement and even investigative techniques such as surveillance, court research, interviewing, impersonation and misrepresentation, as well as skip tracing techniques (skip tracing is the search for a person using electronic means). Bail recovery agents must also have firearms training.
Because bounty hunters are still unregulated in many states, the profession has attracted some unsavory types often with criminal records. (In Virginia, you cannot be a bail recovery agent if you have been convicted of a felony and agents must undergo fingerprint and criminal background checks periodically.) Several national organizations have formed to clean up the professions image. These include Professional Bail Agents of the United States and The National Association of Bail Enforcement Agents, among others. They offer training as well as advice to potential bounty hunters.
It seems that large numbers of men (sic) are attracted to the profession, but dont understand the experience needed, Ralph Thomas, author of “The Bail Bond Recovery Business” cautions. Bail bond pick-ups (or re-arrests) can be performed by any 250-pound-animal.
Thats the easy part, Thomas seems to think. Just locating the bail jumpers is 98 percent of the job.
The profession has also attracted some academic interest. Alexander Tabarrok of George Mason University co-authored a 2004 study called “The Fugitive: Evidence on Public Versus Private Law Enforcement From Bail Jumping,” published in the Journal of Law and Economics. Bail bondsmen and their recovery agents exist because law enforcement agencies cannot devote the time needed to locate bail jumpers for any but the most serious crimes. Still, some states have tried pre-release systems that didnt involve private bond. Tabarroks study looked at the success rate of these public programs versus private bond systems in getting individuals to show up for court dates.
According to the study, about a quarter of released felony defendants in the U.S. fail to appear at trial. This is sometimes due to illness or forgetfulness, but after one year 30 percent of those who failed to appear will remain at large. By comparing those released without bond (on their own recognizance) as opposed to those who had to post bond, the study found that those released on bond are 28 percent less likely to fail to appear than similar defendants who didnt have to post bond. The study concludes: . . .bond dealers and bail enforcement agents (bounty hunters) are effective at discouraging flight and at recapturing defendants. Bounty hunters, not public police, appear to be the true long arms of the law.”
Still, those considering the profession need only look at recent news (“Richmond Man Charged in Bail Bondsman Death,” Charlottesville News, March 8, 2008) to understand that the real counterparts to the dark, romantic characters played by McQueen and Eastwood face a dangerous job with long, tedious hours and unreliable income.
Criminals, it seems, are not always easy to find.
NEXT: Running in Virginia: Triathlons, Biathlons, Adventure Races and More