The bail industry is struggling as more defendants go home under bail reform

Jonathan Bandler Will Cleveland
New York State Team
  • With about 25% of inmates being released without bail, bail bond companies are struggling
  • Bail bondsmen want more judicial discretion in setting bail, echoing criticism from law enforcement
  • New York law has ended cash bail cases in misdemeanor and most non--violent felonies.

The most hated acronyms for bail bond agents are DAT and ROR. And across New York, they’re hearing them a lot lately.

That’s because more and more defendants are being released on their own recognizance (ROR) or just on desk appearance tickets (DAT) under the new law eliminating cash bail for all misdemeanors and most non-violent felonies.

It has cut jail populations by about 25% and drastically slashed the bail bond agents’ bottom line, forcing larger agencies to close some of their offices and sending many agents scrambling for second incomes.

The problems for bail bond companies is one of the many impacts of the law that is fueling a bitter battle in Albany over whether changes should be made since it took effect Jan. 1.

"The impact on our industry is it will basically wipe us out," said Jay Bernardo, who runs the Bernardo-Goldstein & Quinn Agency in Albany and is president of the New York State Bail Bondsman Association.

"Agencies have not been able to stay open because no business is coming in. If you're relying on this for your income, you should be looking for other careers."

The state's online registry shows 205 licensed bail bond agents. Bernardo said most of those will ride out their licenses until they expire, but there's little chance many will renew if there's no rollback of the bail reform measures.

Bail reform in New York hotly debated

Republicans and law enforcement and some Democrats, particular in upstate and the New York City suburbs, are urging for changes to the law, saying it has led to dangerous individuals being released without bail.

Among the changes sought include more judicial discretion over whether bail should be set.

"Bail reform needed to happen in the interest of justice and equal treatment of accused individuals but we must balance those objectives against the safety and security of our residents," Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, Westchester County, said in a statement Jan. 6.

Supporters of the law are urging legislators to keep it as is, saying ending most cash bail creates more equity in a criminal justice system that shouldn't be based on wealth. 

They are rallying Tuesday at the Capitol.

"We cannot accept locking up more of our communities as a response to right-wing demagoguery," the advocacy group VOCAL-NY, which is organizing the event, said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed the law last year, said during his budget address Jan. 21 that is he open to discussing changes.

"Reform is an ongoing process," he said.

"It's not that you reform a system once and then you walk away. You make a change in the system. It has consequences, and you have to understand those consequences. We need to respond to the facts, but not the politics."

More:Impact of ending most cash bail in New York: Hundreds of empty jail cells

How bail bond companies are responding in New York

Bail bondsman Yohance Perry of All Pro Bail Agency talks about the new bail reform laws from his White Plains office on Friday, January 17, 2020.

Bail bond companies said they now need to find other ways to make money.

Like many agencies, Bernardo's has long had an insurance brokerage as well. And the company will also fall back on a sports-apparel business started by his two nephews that he has helped grow.

The bail bond association is continuing to lobby state lawmakers to scale back the reforms. Over the past two years, it spent nearly $150,000 to make their case, according to state lobbying data.

The biggest complaint in the industry echoes that by prosecutors and police — that the new law takes away a judge’s discretion to decide who needs bail to ensure they return to court.

Those who want the law unchanged said judges do have discretion over pre-trial conditions, such as requiring electronic monitoring or social service programs.

More:The reason for ending cash bail in NY: Why advocates want no changes

Yohance Perry, a Westchester bail bondsman, said lengthy rap sheets should be considered whether bail is used.

Those who are persistent felony offenders facing certain prison time should have to post bail, as should those who have often failed to make court appearances, because they are likely candidates not to show up again, he said.

“The system has to be tailored on a case-by-case basis, client by client,” Perry said. “The whole DAT? That doesn’t make sense to me. You get pulled over for speeding, you get a ticket. I don’t think that course of action should be used for the criminal justice system.”

Khalil Cumberbatch, the chief strategist for New Yorkers United for Justice, which pushed for the bail law, charged that he can't be too concerned about an industry that has been part of the problem.

"No one wants to see people lose their jobs," he said, but the focus should be on those who suffered from the inequality of the bail system and not those who were "profiting off people's vulnerability."

More:Cash bail in New York: Democrats to consider changes. Here's what they might do

Ira Judelson, dubbed Bail Bondsman to the Stars for posting bail for the likes of filmmaker Harvey Weinstein and French politician Dominique Strauss Kahn, contended he's less concerned about the loss of business than the impact on public safety.

He said criminals have figured out the new system and know "they can do it again and get out again."

He was in Westchester County Court last week to post the $25,000 bond for James Ready, a former Mount Vernon cop charged with assaulting a prisoner.

The following day he made national news when he took over the troubled bail situation of Fotis Dulos, the Connecticut man charged with murdering his estranged wife who died of an apparent suicide Jan. 30.

Bail bond agents make their money with the premiums they can charge when a bail bond is secured.

While the assumption is that the premium is always 10%, there is actually a sliding scale mandated by the state.

Ten percent is what's charged for bond up to $3,000, but it's 6% for anything above $10,000. Sometimes judges require collateral as well, but that money or property is refunded when bail is exonerated.

More:Fotis Dulos, accused of killing wife Jennifer Dulos, dies; left note saying he didn't kill her

What issues are being debated in New York over bail laws

Misdemeanors may not need bail, Judelson said, but a judge should be allowed discretion on any felony.

He said the state should have a three strikes rule on bail: If you get warrants three times for failing to appear in court, regardless of the charge, bail should be set.

"Nobody (in state government) thought to ask the right people about how to do it right," Judelson said, including bail bondsmen among the judges, prosecutors and cops who he said could set legislators straight.

"Yes you should even the playing field, but it should be like instant replay in football: let's get it right."

Supporters, though, said bail should not be used as punishment, particularly among poor minorities, and those accused are innocent until proven guilty.

"For far too long our criminal justice system has disproportionately affected black and brown communities, making affluence a major factor in how one is treated," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, wrote Jan. 30 on Twitter.

"The time has come to say enough."

Joe Bunk, owner of A Bail Co. Inc in downtown Rochester, is bracing for ongoing troubles for his industry. Democrats have approved a series of criminal justice reforms since taking control of the state Legislature last year and proposed more this year.

“I really can’t see it going backwards,” Bunk said. “I know there is a big push to try, but maybe I’ll be surprised. I hope they do. Not only for my business, but because of the victims and everything is so pro-criminal now."

Like many in his field, Bunk recognizes bail isn't necessarily appropriate in misdemeanor cases or low level felonies. 

"But in cases where somebody invades your space, I think those should be qualifying offenses and that bail should be placed on those people," Bunk said.

More:Exclusive: How many inmates will be freed when cash bail ends in NY?

The impact on the bail industry of the new law in New York

Bail bondsman Mike Dwyer of Rochelle Bail Agency in Yonkers on Wednesday, January 22, 2020.

Perry runs All-Pro Bail out of a fourth-floor office on East Post Road in White Plains. Business is down more than 75% for him since Thanksgiving, when judges began anticipating the new law and foregoing bail for most defendants.

The USA TODAY Network New York estimated at least 3,800 inmates were set to be released in the weeks before and after the law took effect Jan. 1.

“At this time, I would usually be running around and in court and other courts, the phones ringing,” Perry said. “I’ve gotten a couple of calls this week but it's just not the same flow like it used to be.”

Around the corner from his office, Empire Bail Bonds, a large New York City-based agency, closed its Westchester office, one of three they closed in recent months.

Perry dealt first hand with bail in 2005 when he was a senior offensive lineman for the Temple University football team.

He was wrongly accused of robbery at an off-campus apartment building and spent more than 30 hours in a holding cell before his arraignment and before bond was posted.

The charges were dropped months later —a life-defining moment that led him to become a bail bondsman.

More:Ending bail reform: Why some NY Republicans lawmakers want the law tossed

Mike Dwyer, a bondsman in Yonkers, said bail reform could have been accomplished by cracking down on unscrupulous agents who charge higher premiums than they should and don't give receipts for the collateral.

The company has been in business since 1936 and the crumbling sign outside the office on New Main Street may match the industry's prospects over the next few years. Dwyer bought the company a decade ago and has felt the pinch in recent months.

He and Bernardo acknowledged that members of their industry have not always enjoyed stellar reputations. 

"Nobody feels sorry for the bail agent, right?" Bernardo said.  

But they point to the ways the industry benefits the criminal justice system. Costs associated with warrant officers are kept down, they argue, because bail bond agents keep tabs on their clients and bring them in when they miss court dates.

Cumberbatch, of New Yorkers United for Justice, said the effort to restore judicial discretion and add back bail to some of the crimes that used to qualify is premature less than a month after the law took effect.

That's because there is no data yet to support the doomsday scenario law enforcement and the bail industry is putting forward, he said.

"The bail bonds industry has for decades profited off of when a person’s liberty is at stake," he said in a statement..

Since debate over bail reform dates back decades, Cumberbatch said, "the bail bondsmen had the ability to prepare for this inevitable shift that is also saving the state millions of taxpayers’ dollars."

Dwyer said that while he agrees with some reforms, eliminating judicial discretion was the wrong way to go and he expects fewer people will show up for court and more crimes will be committed. 

"The pendulum has swung, to me, to the extreme other side and there needs to be some modification," he said. "Who could have looked at this and said 'This is good for public safety'?"

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Jonath Bandler is a staff writer for The Journal News/ Will Cleveland is a staff writer for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester.