Roughly 10 commercial bail bond establishments line the streets of Downtown Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights, most within easy walking distance of the Brooklyn House of Detention.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer wants these businesses eliminated. Last week, he issued a report calling for the total abolishment of commercial bail bonds in the city — and eventually the state and nation — saying the industry plays an unnecessary and expensive role as a middleman in the bail process.
According to Stringer’s report, the city spends $100 million a year to lock up people too poor to make bail. More than 80 percent of these are black or Hispanic and 40 percent are under 30 years old.
“This is about right and wrong, and it’s about justice. No one should be incarcerated simply because they lack the ability to pay bail, but that’s exactly what’s happening to New Yorkers, particularly in communities of color,” Stringer said in a statement.
He added, “The private operators who profit off this backwards system should be put out of business — that’s how we begin to reverse decades of shortsighted criminal justice policies,”
This is news to Brooklyn-born Michelle Esquenazi, who owns Empire Bail Bonds, one of the largest commercial bail bond agencies in the state.
Commercial bail bond businesses are a “small, functional and integral part of the criminal justice system in New York state,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle on Friday.
Bail bonds get defendants to show up for court, she said, “Because it’s mom and dad, grandpa, Uncle Tony coming in to sign for you.”
Esquenazi said bail bonds are an insurance policy that the accused will show up. “It’s a one-time fee and the parents pay. We refer to it as the ‘Circle of Love.’”
A $10,000 bond costs $860 in New York, the lowest premium in the nation, she said. The service keeps defendants out of jail and saves the city money — without costing the city a penny. If the defendant fails to appear in court, the bonding company is liable for the full amount. And if the defendant runs, the bond agency has to bring him back in.
“When a defendant goes missing, guess who goes to pick him up? Us stinky bail bond people, while New York City is sleeping, at no taxpayer expense,” she said. “That’s God’s honest truth. It’s a national grab at a private industry.”
She added, “I don’t think Stringer did his math.”
Crime is a ‘Lifestyle Choice’
Esquenazi, chair of the NYS Bail Bondsman Association, is known as New York’s “Bail Bond Queen.” She’s been featured on multiple TV shows, in magazines and online. Her company has sold thousands of bail bonds to defendants big and small, including a $1.5 million bond to Michael Mastromarino, “the Brooklyn Bone Snatcher,” who replaced stolen bones in cadavers with PVC pipes.
“You gotta be really twisted, right? Is it just me?” she said.
Esquenazi says she never trusted Mastromarino. She came down hard on him to ensure he wouldn’t skip.
“I sent my bounty hunters to the house at 5 a.m., stuff like that. He spent $90,000 in additional premiums to get rid of me” when he moved to another bond company, she said. “That’s the man who spent the most money to get rid of me,” she laughed.
“His lawyer asked me, ‘Why are you busting his shoes?’”
“He’s got that smell,” Esquenazi told him.
But she is also “a mother of four, a taxpayer, a domestic violence survivor” employing people of all races, she said. Her daughter is biracial.
Most bail bond companies are family-owned businesses, she said, and that includes Empire, where Esquenazi’s niece, nephew and kids are employed.
About six people work in Empire’s Downtown Brooklyn office. One is Managing Agent Anthony Pallone, who started with Empire in 1999 as one of their first employees.
“From when I was little I was taught right from wrong. You don’t want to get in trouble, you don’t want to go to jail,” he told the Eagle. “By them taking away bail bonds, basically you’re rewarding people for crime. It’s going to be a revolving system.”
He added, “If you interview taxpayers, no one is going to want to pay their hard-earned money for criminals to get out of jail. I don’t think the system is broken. I think it’s a bigger agenda, obviously.”
Esquenazi is not about throwing the poor into jail. If people are too poor to pay the bond premium, the city could have an indigence policy, Esquenazi said.
“If someone is homeless and they jump the turnstile or steal food, that’s one thing.” They should have to prove their indigence, however, just as if they were applying for food stamps.
“Crime is a lifestyle choice,” she said. “The criminal offender is not a victim. That’s ludicrous! Stringer is blaming the bail bond industry.”
Ensures the System Doesn’t Melt Down
Nationwide, 62 percent of people in jail are not serving time — they’re waiting for justice to be served in cases that usually involve misdemeanor crimes or lesser offenses, according to the Vera Institute for Justice. The nonprofit group says that many people accused of committing a crime can be relied on to appear in court and do not have to post bail or be held until trial.
But bail bonds ensure that the system doesn’t melt down, Esquenazi said. In Harris County in Houston last May, commercial bail bonds were eliminated, and most defendants have instead been obtaining unsecured bonds from the courts.
The police union now says the use of unsecured bonds has made the court “a revolving door that puts repeat offenders back on the street overnight,” according to an article in Click 2 Houston.
Statistics compiled by the district clerk’s office in Houston show a large number of suspects “simply don’t bother to show up” for court. The forfeit rate is about 43 percent.
Removing judicial discretion to require bail “doesn’t make sense,” Esquenazi said.
Stringer’s report also calls out the industry’s bad operators. Some agencies, for example, have been known to collect fees above the legally permitted amount or fail to return collateral as required under contract.
“Honestly, we have a few bottom feeders,” Esquenazi acknowledged. However, “just because there’s one or two broken roller coasters, we don’t abolish carnivals.”