Freakonomics Radio

Freakonomics: Why bounty hunters catch more fugitives than police officers

Stephen Dubner May 17, 2011
Freakonomics Radio

Freakonomics: Why bounty hunters catch more fugitives than police officers

Stephen Dubner May 17, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. We’ve come to that moment every couple of weeks, where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name — it is about the hidden side of everything. Dubner, welcome back.

Stephen Dubner: Hey thanks Kai. I’m wondering, you pay your taxes, don’t you?

Ryssdal: Yes I do.

Dubner: And tell me this: how happy are you with the services you get in return? Let’s say services at the local level? Do you like it?

Ryssdal: Yeah, mostly, yeah.

Dubner: Now how about police? Do you think the police do a pretty good job?

Ryssdal: Yes. Yes. Yes.

Dubner: Now how good do you think the police are at catching fugitives? Any idea?

Ryssdal: I have no idea. And also, I’m lost. Where are you going with this?

Dubner: All right, let me tell you. I was talking to a guy named Alex Tabarrok, who’s an economist at George Mason University. He taught me something very interesting I want you to hear.

Alex Tabarrok: Twenty-five percent of defendants — felony defendants — simply fail to show up on the day of their trial. That’s a huge number; I was flabbergasted. So this means that the judge’s time is wasted, the lawyer’s time is wasted, the prosecutor’s time is wasted, the police — they have to go out and try to recapture this guy. It’s a big cost to the criminal justice system.

So that cost obviously gets passed on to taxpayers like you and me, and makes extra work for the cops. So Tabarrok wanted to know, when a fugitive has to be hauled back to court, how good a job do the police do versus the private sector, you know, bounty hunters? And here’s what Tabarrok found out: bounty hunters are about 50 percent more likely to bring back their man.

Ryssdal: That’s kind of amazing, actually. Two things: one thing, it’s amazing that 25 percent of these guys don’t show up, because I’m nervous when I just get a traffic ticket, right? I put on a coat and a tie and I go to court. But also, how come these bounty hunters are more successful? I can only think of one thing, which is that they’re scary people, right? You see them on TV in those shows.

Dubner: That’s exactly right. Dog the Bounty Hunter, people think it’s muscles and all that. So I actually asked a guy named Bob Burton about this. Burton is a legendary bounty hunter who runs a big operation out of Santa Barbara. He says that portrayals that we see on TV like Dog’s — or well here, I’m going to have him say it.

Bob Burton: It’s grossly exaggerated. First of all, no one in the industry acts, or rather, looks like that. We’re dealing with cops, judges, district attorneys. We can’t look the way he looks. Forget the long hair — you stand out. And it’s pure television nonsense, the way he looks.

So being a bounty hunter is not about the muscles or the drama, it’s about efficiency, pure and simple. Now Kai, let me ask you this: what percent of the fugitives that the bounty hunters go after do you think that they land?

Ryssdal: Uh, 74.

Dubner: That’s a great guess. Try 97 percent. Now it’s not to say that police are necessarily slacking off, though, because police have a lot of other duties beyond catching fugitives. The difference — as always — is in the incentives. So police officers, they earn their salary regardless of whether they round up a given fugitive. A bounty hunter only gets paid when they bring their guy back.

Ryssdal: How much do they get paid, though?

Dubner: Well, a bounty hunter usually gets 10 percent of the amount of the bail, but there’s huge variance in the bail. So you might earn $50 for a $500 bond, or once in a great, great while, $100,000 for a $1 million bond. Bob Burton says that the typical bounty hunter earns between let’s say $48,000 and $65,000 a year.

Ryssdal: So it’s pretty direct, right? I mean, you go after the guy, you catch them, because it’s your livelihood?

Dubner: That’s exactly right. Or you know, as Bob Burton puts it: no body, no booty. There’s no paycheck showing up if you don’t bring the guy. But let me also stress, not all the incentives in the bounty hunting economy are financial; there’s a lot of psychology too. Alex Tabarrok went out and asked one bounty hunter why bail bondsmen usually try to get a family member to co-sign the bond.

Tabarrok: And he says, ‘I deal with a lot of mean people in my business. These guys, they’re not afraid of me, they’re not afraid of the police. But they’re still afraid of their mother. So if I get the mother to co-sign on a bond, and this guy knows that the mother might lose her house if he doesn’t show up for trial, he’s going to show up for trial.’

Dubner: So Kai, the next time you get a wild hair and think about jumping bail, I just want you to picture your mama, all right?

Ryssdal: My mother loves me. She would never turn me in. If you’re listening, Mom, please side with me on this one.

Stephen Dubner, is the website. He is back in just a couple of weeks. Dubner, we’ll see you later.

Dubner: Just remember, your mama.

Ryssdal: No, your mama.

Dubner: Your mama.

Ryssdal: Mom, I love you.

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