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All they want for Christmas is ... Bail

It's a bountiful and busy season for bondsmen: Families want loved ones in lockup home for the holidays.

"The one thing you can always count on with the holidays: People want to get home to their families," said Brent Walls, shown outside his Shamrock Bail Bonds in Norristown
"The one thing you can always count on with the holidays: People want to get home to their families," said Brent Walls, shown outside his Shamrock Bail Bonds in NorristownRead moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )

A former Marine, Matt Broughton was aware of the irony when he was arrested, for the first time in his life, on Veterans Day.

But, with bail set at $200,000, and the prospect of missing Christmas with his daughters, ages 5 and 2, looming, he didn't have time to dwell on it.

"I missed Thanksgiving, but I was really wanting to get out for the rest of the holidays," said Broughton, 25, of Warminster, who was charged with burglary. He did a tour in Iraq in 2009-10 and still grapples with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the end, his bail was cut to $10,000, a friend put up the deed to his house as collateral, and Broughton's wife found an amenable bail bondsman to get him out - just in time to scramble for presents.

"We're still trying to figure out how to give them gifts," he said. "They're not real picky. They both like Frozen."

There's no place like home for the holidays - and county jail, Broughton can now confirm, is not a close second.

No wonder, then, that, just as retailers count on holiday shoppers to push them into the black, bail bondsmen also experience a pre-Christmas rush.

"The one thing you can always count on with the holidays: People want to get home to their families, and their families want them home," said Brent Walls, the agent with Shamrock Bail Bonds in Norristown who secured Broughton's release.

But, he added, there's another factor: "People are stealing for their families to give them Christmas presents. It's unfortunate, because then they put their family in a situation where they have to spend their holiday money on getting them out."

Antonio Roman, of Roman's Bail Bonds, which serves South Jersey, said his already-heavy call volume - an average of 50 or 60 calls per day - increases by 20 percent ahead of Christmas.

These are not, generally, kingpins.

"The most typical bail I see is from $500 to $2,500," he said. "They're the people that can't afford the payment plans, or miss court one day."

Recently, he helped a man who had been in the Salem County jail for more than two weeks.

"The mom was basically collecting funds from friends. She wanted him out for the holidays," he said. "She didn't buy her kids Christmas gifts just so she could get him out of jail."

The amount she had to scrape together was $150 - toward his $1,500 bail.

Legislation passed this year in New Jersey will reform the state's bail system, shifting it from a money-based system to one more based on risk. A 2013 analysis of New Jersey jails commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance found that 38.5 percent of the jail population was eligible to post bail but did not have the money to do so; 12 percent were languishing in jail due to an inability to pay $2,500 or less.

(Small bail amounts prove insurmountable to many in Pennsylvania, too. Walls recalled one man who spent two weeks in jail because his father wouldn't or couldn't post $10 for his release.)

Some familiar with the criminal-justice system are scrambling to clear any outstanding warrants ahead of the courts' holiday, from Christmas Eve through New Year's. Roman has seen demand for his safe-surrender services for that reason.

"I have four clients today that want to surrender themselves, so they can post bail. They don't want to get jammed over the holidays," he said last Thursday. "These are people that missed court dates for traffic tickets or minor criminal offenses."

Each state and county system works differently. In Montgomery County, bail bondsmen are allowed into jail each morning to offer their services to newcomers.

Walls stops by the jail, and then calls the families, often breaking news of the arrest. "Reactions," he said, "range from 'Oh my God! What can we do?' to 'Not again. Tell him, not this time.' "

With two cellphones and an apartment above his office, Walls prides himself on being available at all hours to bail people out. Repeat customers are plentiful particularly among shoplifters.

"They get caught over and over," he said. "You'd think, after two times, maybe they'd realize, but it's just a way of life for people with low means is what I've come to see."

A former English teacher, Walls never imagined he'd be in this business. But it's satisfying, he said: "This job is like being a counselor. Helping people is important to me."

Just across the street is DL Carl Bail Bonds, run by Debbie Carl, a 20-year veteran. Each year, she decorates her storefront windows with a lavish animatronic Christmas display for the entertainment of children whose parents visit the methadone clinic next door.

"Around Thanksgiving, that's when retail theft, forgeries, fraud, and burglaries pick up. This week I was very busy," she said, explaining that the King of Prussia mall is a destination for shoplifters from New York and beyond.

Carl said being a woman in a male-dominated business has advantages. She takes a softer approach: For instance, she uses the term "recovery agent," not "bounty hunter."

She doesn't do credit checks; almost no one has decent credit anyway. But this business is all about judgment calls, she said.

"If it's a person who has 13 different names, which one of them am I going to bail out?"

But when she can, she offers payment plans.

"I'll work with families if I know they're struggling," she said.

With Christmas fast approaching, Walls has been extending payment plans to several clients, trying to get them home to their kids in time even if it means waiting until after New Year's to collect his fees.

One of those was a 30-year-old union laborer from Philadelphia's Fox Chase section, who didn't want his name used. The man had just spent three months in Montgomery County jail on harassment charges.

"I'm just so thankful to be home with my family," said Walls' client, who has a 10-year-old son at home, along with his girlfriend's 2-year-old daughter. He met others in jail who lacked the resources to win their release.

"It not only affects the person that's in jail, but their families miss them. No one's holidays are the same," he said.

He already had to explain his absence over Thanksgiving to his son.

"He knows I was in jail," he said. "I told him I was in a place where I learned how to be a better dad."