While awaiting trial dates (which can take years), or to strike a plea deal (which can take months), arrested New Yorkers have to make a choice: either sit in Rikers Island, a desperate and dangerous place, or have their family make a deal with a bondsman to bail them out.
But New York City’s bail bondsmen operate almost entirely without regulation, and often without licenses or scrutiny of their services, which are frequently punitively expensive, according to a report released today by the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, a nonprofit that partners with public defender agencies to bail people out of jail.
“People who turn to bondsmen are often overcharged, and are the victims of deceptive practices. It’s common sense that this industry should be robustly regulated, but it is not,” said Peter Goldberg, the executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, during a press conference on City Hall’s steps this morning. “It is not uncommon for bail bondsmen to operate without state-required licenses, and they fail to comply with state-required reporting obligations. There’s a complete lack of transparency.”
The report, which was sent to the governor, attorney general, and the city’s comptroller, highlights the ways in which the city’s bail bondsmen can make outrageous demands on low-income New Yorkers, entirely predicated on the desperation they face when trying to bring their loved ones home.
Bail is designed to ensure that people accused of crimes show up to court dates, and the money is returned after an individual completes the criminal justice process, regardless of outcome. But in many cases it has been used to create a de facto prison sentence for people who haven’t been convicted of a crime and lack the funds to pay bail.
In New York State, judges can set up to nine different types of bail. Most times, they either set a cash bail or a commercial bail bond. With the latter, private companies charge onerous nonrefundable fees to families just to get the bond.
According to the report, at least 11,000 New Yorkers had to resort to bail bonds last year, with the industry taking in somewhere between $14 and $20 million.
“Predatory bail lending targets low-income communities of color, much like other predatory industries, and drains these communities of money they could be using to pay for rent or utilities,” said Nasoan Sheftel-Gomes, a supervising attorney at the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project. “The bail bond industry must be regulated much like other predatory industries in the state.”
The speakers cited debt collectors as an industry that has been meaningfully regulated by state laws and stringent oversight, aiming to achieve less harmful effects in low-income communities.
The report outlines how bail bondsmen are able to attach conditions with near impunity, like requiring ankle bracelets (see Nick Pinto’s recent Voice piece for how bail bondsmen operate in cases involving immigrants), and can rearrest individuals when they fail to comply with any of the conditions. According to the report, at least nine bail bondsmen appeared to be operating without a license, while six companies were using fictitious names or weren’t registered with the state.
Last month, a commission convened by the City Council looking into ways to reduce the city’s jail population recommended the end of any form of cash bail.
“A person’s freedom should not be determined by what’s in his or her wallet,” the commission’s report stated. The advocates explained that ultimately the goal is to end cash bail entirely, but until then they’re aiming to shine some light on the lax oversight of bail bondsmen to curb some of their worst practices.
The report includes several recommendations for ways to rein in the industry, including increased enforcement of existing regulations, as well as the creation of a clear set of consumer rights and a process for placing complaints with the city or state.
“With commercial bail bondsmen,” said Goldberg, “we’ve outsourced the decision of who is free or who is jailed to for-profit actors, and that is a disgrace and a practice that needs to end.”