It’s just after 4 p.m., and the late-afternoon clouds have grown dark with rain. Fast-witted and sharp-tongued Tushina Crum, 31 years old, has spent the whole day with her petite, pierced junior partner, Ileana Zamudio, pounding on doors in search of a man we’ll call Daniel. The women finally have a promising lead.
Surrounded by the red rock canyons of rural Colorado, we drive to the next town over, where we turn down a series of side streets before coming to a stop. Crum straps a bulletproof vest over her white V-neck T-shirt, and a black SUV pulls up behind us. Three baroquely tattooed men of varying ages, each clad in all-black and wearing bulletproof vests as well, step out: Our backup has arrived. Together we start toward a gray aluminum shed that’s been converted into a motorcycle shop. Big Daddy and SWAT, who is carrying what looks like a shotgun but supposedly shoots only rubber bullets, head around to the back in case Daniel tries to run. Old Timer trails behind the ladies as they walk up the driveway, their right hands poised above the Glocks on their waistbands, right next to the hot-pink handcuffs. I follow, conscious that I’m not wearing a bulletproof vest. In the garage are three biker dudes who look simultaneously intimidating and apprehensive of the visitors, who, from the looks of them, could be police or thugs. Turns out they’re neither.
For this close-knit crew of bounty hunters, today is just another day on the job, Daniel just another degenerate on the run. But in many ways it’s more. It’s an adrenaline fix. It’s a source of pride, purpose and power. It’s a way of life.
And it’s on the verge of extinction.
Along with a multitude of other justice reforms sweeping the country, courts are beginning to rethink the time-old tradition of cash bail. More sensitive to the negative repercussions of imprisonment, and fed up with footing the bill for overcrowded jails, a growing number of states and counties are looking for a new way to mete out justice, one that doesn’t involve a cash register. As it is, more than 60 percent of inmates in city and county jails haven’t yet been convicted. And 5 out of 6 of those are not there because they’re a flight risk or a danger to society: They’re behind bars because they can’t afford bail. One solution authorities are experimenting with is trading financial collateral for government supervision — a pretrial probation of sorts.