NYC Bail bond system under fire from activists
Cash or Bond?
Those are normally the two words that a person accused of a crime hears if a judge grants them bail during their arraignment in the courthouses across the city. The defendant then has three options — languish in jail awaiting trial, pay the full amount up front and get released or go to a bail bondsman.
The bail bond system for getting defendants out of jail before their case continues is currently under fire from criminal justice reform activists who say that it disproportionately targets poor people and minorities. As they slowly chip away at the system they hope to ultimately dismantle, one of their main targets has become the bail bond industry — a private and for-profit arm of the criminal justice system.
“In other places, they’re banned,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, the Civil Rights Campaign Director, referring to the fact that the Philippines and the U.S. are the only two countries that still use bail bonds. “There’s an understanding that having a private actor with a profit motive … runs totally counter to … this idea of like, fairness and justice.”
With new regulations being reviewed by the state’s Department of Financial Services and with legislation sitting in Albany waiting for review, the bail reformers say they hope first to better regulate and ultimately to ban bail bonds.
Michelle Esquenazi, the president of the New York State Bail Bondsman Association and CEO of Empire Bonds, one of the state’s largest bail bondsman operations, said she’s against bail reform and that bail bondsmen play a vital role in the criminal justice system.
“We’re like a private arm, if you will, of the criminal justice system,” said Esquenazi. The bail bondsman industry is essentially an insurance policy and a way to ensure that the defendant will show up for their court date, she said. And if the defendant doesn’t show up, the bondsman will go find them and return them to court, at no cost to taxpayers.
According to a report released earlier this year by the New York City Comptroller’s Office that argued for the end of bail bonds and for broader bail reform, private bail bonds account for more than half of bail posted in New York City’s court system. There were 12,000 private bail bonds posted in the fiscal year of 2017. The total for the bonds was valued at $268 million, with between $16 million and $27 million paid in nonrefundable fees by the family and friends of those arrested.
Esquenazi acknowledged that she’s trying to protect her business, but she’s also cited concerns for public safety and said that bail reform more broadly “rewards recidivism” and will release people out onto the streets without any way to hold them accountable to return to court.
But Peter Goldberg, an advocate for bail reform and the executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, a charitable bail fund, argued that most people will return to court on their own. He then questioned what the role of bail really is in the court system.
“If the point is to get people out, well, there are ways to get people out that don’t involve for-profit actors. If the point is to keep people safe, that’s the one that I scratched my head about,” he said. And bail bondsmen, he added, “They’re the ones who actually pay to get people out.”
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