On the day of their trial, a substantial number of felony defendants fail to appear. Public police have the primary responsibility for pursuing and rearresting defendants who were released on their own recognizance or on cash or government bail. Defendants who made bail by borrowing from a bond dealer, however, must worry about an entirely different pursuer. When a defendant who has borrowed money skips trial, the bond dealer forfeits the bond unless the fugitive is soon returned. As a result, bond dealers have an incentive to monitor their charges and ensure that they do not skip. When a defendant does skip, bond dealers hire bounty hunters to return the defendants to custody. We compare the effectiveness of these two different systems by examining failure-to-appear rates, fugitive rates, and capture rates of felony defendants who fall under the various systems. We apply propensity score and matching techniques.


Approximately one-quarter of all released felony defendants fail to appear at trial. Some of these failures to appear are due to sickness or forgetfulness and are quickly corrected, but many represent planned abscondments. After 1 year, some 30 percent of the felony defendants who initially fail to appear remain fugitives from the law. In absolute numbers, some 200,000 felony defendants fail to appear every year, and of these, approximately 60,000 will remain fugitives for at least 1 year.

The Journal of Law and Economics

Defendants who fail to appear impose significant costs on others. Direct costs include the costs of rearranging and rescheduling court dates, the wasted time of judges, lawyers, and other court personnel, and the costs necessary to find and apprehend or rearrest fugitives. Other costs include the additional crimes that are committed by fugitives. In 1996, for example, 16 percent of released defendants were rearrested before their initial case came to trial. We can be sure that the percentage of felony defendants who commit additional crimes is considerably higher than their rearrest rate. We might also expect that the felony defendants who fail to appear are the ones most likely to commit additional crimes. Indirect costs include the increased crime that results when high failure-to-appear (FTA) and fugitive rates reduce expected punishments.

The dominant forms of release are by surety bond, that is, release on bail that is lent to the accused by a bond dealer, and nonfinancial release. Just over one-quarter of all released defendants are released on surety bond, and a very small percentage pay cash bail or put up their own property with the court (less than 5 percent combined); most of the rest are released on their own recognizance or on some form of public bail (called deposit bond) in which the defendant posts a small fraction, typically 10 percent or less, of the bail amount with the court. Estimating the effectiveness of the pretrial release system in the United States can be characterized as a problem of treatment evaluation. Treatment evaluation problems can be difficult because treatment is rarely assigned randomly. Release assignment, for example, is based on a judge’s assessment of the likelihood that a defendant will appear in court as well as on considerations of public safety. Correctly measuring treatment effects requires that that we control for treatment assignment. In this paper, we control for selection by matching on the propensity score.

We estimate the treatment effect for three outcomes—the probability that a defendant fails to appear at least once, the probability that a defendant remains at large for 1 year or more conditional on having failed to appear (what we call the fugitive rate), and the probability that a defendant who failed to appear is recaptured as a function of time. The earlier economic studies of the bail system examine the role of the bail amount in the decision to fail to appear, generally finding that higher bail reduces FTA rates.These studies did not focus on the central issue of this paper—the different incentive effects of the various release types.

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