An Inside Look at the Risky, Changing World of a Richmond Bail Bondsman

The man on the other end of the phone line wants Dan Barto to get his wife out of jail.

It’s 9:30 at night, and Barto, a part-time bail bondsman, has about five minutes to decide whether he trusts the guy.

The man says this is the first time his wife’s been arrested — charged with drug possession, driving without a license and avoiding arrest.

The caller says they’re going to check into a detox facility together once she’s out of jail and get her back on medications for bipolar disorder and recurrent depression.

Barto stands to make $750 for a few hours work. But he risks the full $7,500 bail. And because some clients can pay only in installments, that $750 could take a while to come by.

“It’s a character judgment,” Barto says. “I write bonds that look crappy on paper, but they turn out OK. The ones that don’t turn out OK always surprise me.”

He decides to go for this one.

Barto is one of 384 bondsmen in Virginia, a license he picked up in 2011 to supplement his income as a software developer. He does the latter full time from his home in Chesterfield County.

He looked into being a private investigator, but settled on bonding, despite advice from other bondsmen.

“The old-timers said it was a lot looser before, say 10 years ago — the money was a lot better,” Barto says. “Now there’s fewer bonds and there’s more people to compete for them.”

Bonding business has decreased with municipal efforts to reduce jail populations among those awaiting trial by expanding alternatives to bail. That means more people are let out on personal recognizance, often with conditions that they check in with an officer of the court — in phone or in person, sometimes for drug tests and classes.

Broadly, it’s called pretrial services. And last year it was used by almost 23,000 defendants in Virginia.

On this Sunday night in early summer, Barto’s bonding services include some chauffeuring in his Volkswagen Golf. He picks up the caller and his son in the East End.

Barto gets a text, asking that he not reference the plan for tonight in front of the middle-school-aged boy.

Like all bondsmen, Barto promises anonymity to his clients and granted permission for Style to join under the same conditions, including that a photographer not travel along.

“My family doesn’t like my wife,” the 35-year-old says, after the son has been dropped off in the North Side. “I don’t want him telling his mother.”

Barto always gets to know the co-signer best while they wait for the jailed person to be processed.

This man had a job in the medical field but lost his license several years ago. He says he broke his stepfather’s nose trying to defend his mother. “I got 45 days and $1,800 in fees,” he says. “I lost my driver’s license because I couldn’t pay the court fines.”

He says his breathing is labored because of injuries he sustained in high school: he was shot five times and cut in the neck. Now he’s on disability. The fixed income means he can’t put up the $7,500 bail in money or property.

Learning that the co-signer has been in and out of jail, Barto hesitates.

“You’re not the best co-signer,” he says. “You guys are gonna do right by me, right?”

“Yes, sir. I like to stay on good terms with people.”

In a small, fluorescent-lighted room at Hanover County’s Pamunkey Regional Jail, Barto makes him sign two documents: a “contingency promissory note” if his wife doesn’t show up, and another document, a vice versa, that says he’s off the hook for $7,500 if she does show.

Concerning the $750 fee, “I can work with people who work with me,” Barto tells him. “Tell me now what you can pay when.”

Another document lists the administrative fees that get added onto the $750 if she doesn’t show up for court, “if we have to hire a bounty hunter.”

Barto wants to talk about them then, he says, so the person knows the fees aren’t being made up as they go along.

Decreasing the jail population is a goal that Barto shares with many people in government. No one wants as-yet-innocent residents who aren’t threats to society to lose their jobs or families while waiting for their day in court.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently included an additional $2 million in his budget to expand access to pretrial services to localities that don’t already have them. That means $27 million of state appropriations going into community corrections, both pretrial services and local probation.

But Barto takes issue with the lack of distinction between pretrial services and probation for someone found guilty.

“Pretrial services do more harm to defendants,” he says. “They’re on probation before they’re found guilty: drug testing and mandatory drug classes. An agent has the authority to issue a capias if they don’t check in.

“‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is being subverted.”

Of course, pretrial services also pose a threat to his business.

At Pamunkey, the co-signer’s wife emerges from the door. She’s small and tired-looking, dressed in a hoodie and jeans. When she sees her husband, deep dimples overtake her face. She collapses a little into the hug.

She’s been charged with nine nonviolent misdemeanors and felonies.

Barto makes sure the wife understands the value of showing up for court and offers amateur legal advice: “A halfway decent lawyer will knock all of your charges down to misdemeanors.”

“They’ll probably give you a plea,” her husband says. He admonishes her for trying to avoid arrest by giving her sister’s name.

“I told her that was the stupidest thing in the world,” he says to Barto. “They’ll charge you for everything just because you’re scared.”

In the car she updates social media as to her release and talks about the $3-a-day fee for use of the commissary at Pamunkey.

She timidly asks Barto if he’ll stop at McDonald’s, but it’s closed. They stop at Wawa instead.

The husband and wife ask to be dropped off at her brother’s so she can see her kids. The brother will take them to the hospital for detox.

Barto explains that he’ll call several times before her court date, as he drops them off. “I got a good vibe from you on the phone,” he tells them. “If your phone changes, if your address changes, just let me know.

“And just show up.”

Barto is compact, with a nervous energy that sometimes erupts into a manic laugh.

He calls this Hanover bond “on the edge of risk.”

“But they have lots of family” he adds. “If I really needed to, I could find her.”

He knows some will think his qualms with pretrial services are only self-interest. He contends that, if his motives were simply profit, he’d support pretrial services, as it often leads to more bonding business.

“A lot of times what happens is, say they don’t call into their pretrial services, or they show up negative on their drug test: that’s another charge. And they get jailed on that and we get called up again,” Barto explains. “It benefits the bottom line of bail bonding, but I just don’t think it’s right.”

Last year Barto published “You Arrested Me For What? A Bail Bondsman’s Observations of Virginia’s Criminal Justice System.” The slim book rails against pretrial services and measures that keep people in debt to the state after incarceration.

“I really do think the system pulls them down,” he says. “Like, oh, that’s another fee, and another fee.”

He also writes on his website, Aarrow Bail Bonds, with contempt for people calling for bail reform. They are, he writes, “charlatans and frauds who pretend to be the selfless benefactor while, in fact, profiting towards their own selfish agenda and causing harm to … those they claim to be helping.”

Rhonda Gilmer is senior deputy director for justice services in Richmond.

“There are two parts to pretrial services,” she says. “Once an individual is arrested, investigators pull info together, talk to the individual, see whether they’re from the community, whether they’re working, and provide a report to the commonwealth’s attorney and public defenders.

“The second part is the actual supervision. Once they’re arraigned, they’re required to report the following day and are assigned a pretrial officer.”

Her agency prefers that a judge use pretrial services over setting bail but isn’t opposed to commercial bail bonding.

“Bonding relieves crowding in the jail for those who can pay it,” Gilmer says. “But we’ve had situations in the past where, having to come up with 10 percent, they don’t have that $100, so [before their hearing] they spend 60 days in jail for misdemeanors.”

Pretrial services offer an alternative for release, she says.

Mike Herring, the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney, acknowledges that he wants to see commercial bail bonding phased out.

“It is a vestige of a different era that maybe presupposed some correlation between risk and offender’s money,” he says. “If you’re arrested, we have to make sure that, one, you don’t re-offend while you’re awaiting trial, and, two, make sure you come to court.”

But he adds: “It is impossible to correlate an amount with the degree to which you risk re-offending or not showing up. Any amount will be arbitrary.”

He sees a simple model: Either you’re too risky to be let out, or not. “That’s where pretrial services comes in, the role of which is to supervise, make sure they have stable residences, and substance-abuse monitoring pending trial.”

Belief in that model makes him an outlier, he says, but attitudes toward bail bonding are changing.

“The binary system is not foolproof,” Herring says. “There’ll be cases where we overestimate risk, or some where people re-offend, but it’s an improvement over the current system, which gives a false sense of confidence at best.”

Herring isn’t concerned about pretrial drug testing or check-ins. “There was probable cause to arrest,” he says. “Your pretrial status should not be a window of amnesty.”

He cites a 2013 study in Colorado that gives context to bail reform. An assessment of more than 1,900 people found that pretrial defendants let out on a secured bond — for a fee — were no more or less likely to show up for court than when let out on an unsecured bond, a simple contract agreeing to appear.

“My ax to grind is not with bail bonding industry,” Herring says. “It’s the notion of correlating risk with cash.”

And because bail and bond decisions are made at the local level by magistrates’ offices, and general district and circuit courts, it’s a matter of educating judges about the options.

On a different bonding call, a Monday night, Barto meets a mom and one of her sons at the Richmond City Justice Center. They pull up in a U-Haul, in the middle of a move.

The night before, the mom called the police when two of her sons got into a fight. One punched a hole in the wall and was bleeding, so the other was arrested.

Bail is $500, but she can’t put that up on a fixed income. So she called Barto.

A friendly, bulletproof-vest-wearing woman works the jail’s front desk. The waiting room is held hostage to several loud televisions playing different channels. The effect is disorienting.

“I guess it’s a jail. They don’t want you to be too comfortable,” the mom jokes.

The opening of the 1,032-bed Justice Center in 2014 coincided with initiatives to reduce the jail population, including a new day-reporting center.

When her son emerges from the jail, he reports that he must register with a pretrial services officer within 24 hours.

Barto is riled by the mandatory pretrial, in addition to the bail. But he collects his $50 fee.

The mom assumed everyone got pretrial services and was unconcerned about the requirement.

“It never took over 30 minutes, once a week until his court date,” she says later by phone. “I think they just wanted to check in. They discuss guidelines and ask you to write an essay about your life.”

Her son’s charge is later dismissed.

“The ideal is not for pretrial services to be used concurrently with bail bonding services,” Herring says of this example. “If bail bondsmen are capable of doing what they say they are, which is keeping track of the released person, the state shouldn’t also be paying to do the same thing.”

Herring would have foregone the bail. “If the risk is not greater than $500, why set it at all?”

Barto and Herring share concerns about the justice system’s affect on people in poverty. “People on the bottom end of the economic spectrum are the ones most hardest hit,” Barto says of his clients.

Herring echoes that, but reaches a different conclusion.

“The more suspicious person might’ve wondered whether the commercial bail bonding industry was used at one time with more nefarious motives,” he says. “The impact being felt more for low-income people and people of color.”

It’s a deeply partisan issue, with the No Money Bail Act of 2016 proposed in Congress finding only Democratic sponsors. The act would codify the move to end commercial bail bonding.

A recent blog post by Barto expressed fears that a Clinton presidency and Democratic Congress that could pass such legislation. He serves as volunteer coordinator for the Richmond Tea Party and is active on the Chesterfield County Republican Committee.

Barto sees the expansion of pretrial services as a larger encroachment of government services into commercial enterprises. And a low-level conspiracy will keep things moving in that direction.

“Pretrial services plays such a large role in our justice system and judges like them,” he says. “And a lot of [Virginia] legislators are lawyers, and they go before the judges. So it’s hard to get a legislator who goes before judges to knock down pretrial services or reform it in a way that the judges may not like.”

Barto himself seems to argue against his own services sometimes. He agrees that the son should have been released on recognizance, without bail.

“This is a textbook case for the initial reason for why pretrial services were created,” he says. “We need to have an agency for low-risk, low-income [people].”

But a bail was set. And he notes that a lot of bondsmen wouldn’t have left the house for a $50 fee.

“I think there is an ideal role for pretrial services,” Barto says. “Do exactly what the initial premise of it was: bond out the indigent.

“It’s about this whole other thing — it’s about drug testing, and checking in, and people essentially being on probation before trial,” he say, calling it a flawed premise.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia actively supported the governor’s expansion of pretrial services. It also cites the presumption of innocence in a letter to his office.

“I would point out that pretrial services are voluntary,” says Bill Farrar, the director of public policy and communications for the state ACLU. “Defendants can choose to sit in jail awaiting trial instead, but we think this is a much better option.”

The group also notes that pretrial supervision costs the state less than $4 a day, while jail costs around $75 a day.

Bonding is an inconsistent business, to be sure. “I get lots of calls one week, it’s gangbusters, and then it’s dead for another week,” Barto says. “There’s not much a rhyme or a reason to it.”

But Barto says he does well. “I do try to do safe bonds. And I think most bondsmen do this.”

As bonds become less frequent, is he concerned bondsmen will take riskier bonds that leave co-signers in debt?

“I can only control what I do” he says. “I have no control over another bondsman.”

But regarding the Hanover bond and the married couple, he says: “If they hadn’t called me, they would’ve gone through 10 bondsmen.”

Back in Hanover, the first-time felony suspect who Barto bailed out for $750 arrives for her court hearing in chains and an orange jumpsuit.

A week after bailing her out, Barto hears from her husband: His wife didn’t make it to detox, she’s “in the streets” again and doesn’t plan on showing up for court. He wants Barto to revoke the bond.

Barto enlists a bounty hunter and finds her where her husband says she’d be, crying and unwilling to go back.

They turn her over to Pamunkey. Barto calls the experience “difficult.”

Now she enters the courthouse having spent the last two months in jail. Some of her charges are dismissed. Some she’s found guilty of, and fines are levied. She’s remanded again to custody until her Circuit Court hearing. About five minutes before the judge, all in all.

Her husband couldn’t make it. He can’t get to Hanover without a car and a license. But they’re still on good terms and he was looking forward to having her home at the end of June. She’ll be out on time served with a year of probation.

“I just needed her to get head back straight,” he says.

Barto isn’t at the hearing either. But he’s still in touch, the husband says: “He just called me yesterday, day before yesterday, I think. I owe him $300.” S

Editor’s note: This reflects a correction from the print version in a quote that used “habeas” instead of “capias.” Barto’s quote should read: “An agent has the authority to issue a capias if they don’t check in.”

To reach Dan Barto or learn more about his business, visit


WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: