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Following an arrest roughly a year ago, a Bronx man’s family posted bail, with a bond acquired from a company called Allison’s Bail Bonds.
For several months, he met all required court dates and complied with other conditions of his release, according to his court-appointed lawyers with The Bronx Defenders.
But at his last court date, just before Thanksgiving, Allison’s Bail Bonds decided to pull his bond, the defense lawyers said. That meant he went back to jail immediately, where he spent Thanksgiving and remains — and also that his family lost the fee paid to the bondsperson.
Someone who answered Allison’s Bail Bonds’ phone number and identified herself as Allison declined to comment. A sign in the window of the company’s second-floor office on Sheridan Avenue, near Bronx Criminal Court, says the space is for rent.
“When they make these decisions to go in and pull bonds, the consequences are very real to families,” said Eli Northrup, policy counsel for the criminal defense practice at Bronx Defenders, whose client remains on Rikers Island.
“They come to their court date and suddenly they’re in jail,” Northrup added. “It’s not fair and it’s not just.”
This case isn’t unique, said some Bronx public defenders. Ahead of Jan. 1, when new state laws curtailing the use of cash bail take effect, some report bail bond companies in the borough are pulling bonds, even when the accused has met the court’s requirements.
Representatives for the bail bond industry, which fought the changes, declined to speculate on specific cases, but said they may reflect the difficulties to come for bail bond firms.
The strip of bail bond shops on Sheridan Avenue in The Bronx is shrinking.
“It seems like most places are just closing down,” said one bail bond office employee, who declined to be named.
“This whole block on Sheridan used to have a bunch of bail bonds,” the woman added.
That is changing. In addition to Allison’s, Cutting Edge Bail Bonds, across the street from the court, is gone too. Others may follow, some at bail bond shops in the area feared.
“Are people downsizing, are people going out of business?” asked so-called bail bond queen Michelle Esquenazi, past president of the state association of bail bond companies and founder of Empire Bail Bonds. “Absolutely.”
New Year, New Reforms
Starting in January, the new state law would eliminate cash bail and pretrial detention in almost all misdemeanor cases, and in virtually all nonviolent felony cases. Exceptions include domestic violence, sex crimes and cases of witness intimidation.
Supporters of the reforms say the way bail has been used is unjust, and has created a two-tiered system for those who can afford to pay their way out of jail and those who cannot.
Opponents of the new law argue that because it is expected to dramatically decrease jail populations, New York will become less safe, overrun with alleged criminals awaiting trial.
State records show the New York State Bail Bondsman Association, a consortium of nine firms that fund the bonds, spent $75,000 on the lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs in the first six months of 2019, when the criminal justice reforms were brewing.
“Don’t go with your friends to the ball drop” on New Year’s Eve, Esquenazi cautioned, forecasting mayhem as soon as the law kicks in. “Make sure you have the pepper spray on the ready.”
The bail industry’s decline has been many years in the making. Compared with other cities, New York has long released pre-trial an unusually high share of those accused of crimes. A report last January from Comptroller Scott Stringer noted that about 70% are released with only a promise to return to court.
A March 2019 analysis of 30 years of court records by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency found that city courts have gradually moved away from the use of cash bail, to the point where the number of defendants released without bail in 2018 was triple the number of those who had to buy their freedom.
Still, in New York City alone the private bail bond industry makes millions in nonrefundable fees each year — bringing in an estimated $16 million to $27 million in fees alone in 2017, according to the city comptroller.
The sum comes “almost entirely from low-income people of color in New York City,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaign director at VOCAL-NY, which advocates for low-income New Yorkers.
“Their [the bail bond companies’] main interest as a business is that people are in jail and money that they don’t have is the way to get out,” Malinowski said. “That is the business model that the commercial bail bond industry relies on.”
For Esquenazi, the picture is decidedly less rosy. Come Jan. 1, Empire Bail Bonds will close five of its six storefront locations, including its three in New York City.
“Empire will always be operational for the service of all court-related bonds,” she said. “However, the brick-and-mortar facet of who we are will no longer be.”
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