Eric Gonzalez has a longstanding reputation as a “pure district attorney” and criminal justice reformer.
Before assuming his position as the Brooklyn District Attorney in 2016, following the death of much-beloved predecessor Ken Thompson, Gonzalez worked on a policy to scale back the prosecution of low-level marijuana offenders. He also assisted in the creation and implementation of a Conviction Review Unit that investigates cases for people who may have been wrongfully convicted. Once he became the district attorney, Gonzalez announced his office would consider collateral immigration consequences when prosecuting low-level, undocumented defendants. He even vocalized support for the closing of Rikers Island jail. Last Thursday, he dismissed 143,000 warrants for low-level offenses.
So why is the incumbent in Brooklyn’s competitive district attorney race accepting campaign contributions from a bail bond company that preys on poor defendants?
Generally speaking, bail bond companies purport to help poor people get out of jail in lieu of languishing behind bars pretrial. They are often portrayed as wholesome family-owned businesses, but the companies are really part of a massive corporate industry that exploits indigent defendants and their families. Defendants pay bondsmen approximately 10 percent of the set bail amount — a non-refundable fee. The bondsmen then secure defendants’ release by ensuring courts that clients will show up for trial, otherwise the bondsman will be responsible for the full bail amount. Clients are frequently forced to chalk up other forms of collateral, in addition to the non-refundable fee. And if defendants miss a court date, bondsmen may send bounty hunters to catch and rearrest them using a variety of illegal tactics.
Prosecutors in New York City have a long history of locking up poor people of color who have yet to be convicted but are unable to afford bail. Enter the city’s “predatory” bail bond industry, which made $14 million to $20 million last year, according to a report by the Brooklyn Community Fund, an organization dedicated to paying people’s bail with no strings attached. The Fund discovered that more than 11,000 people turned to the bail bond industry last year, but there is little regulation of collectors.
One company benefiting from the city’s lucrative bail industry, Empire Bail Bonds, is helping bankroll Gonzalez’ campaign. The company donated $7,500 to the candidate between last December and July.
Empire claims to be “the largest bail bond company in New York State,” and is run by the “Royal Family” of collectors. The company’s leader is “Bail Bonds Queen” Michelle Esquenazi, whose biography on the Empire website states that she can “get you out of any jam” — comforting language to people who are scraping together funds to help themselves or loved ones get out of jail. But a close look at Empire’s leader shows that the company is more interested in turning a profit than helping poor people who haven’t been found guilty of a crime.
“I insure your appearance in court for the good people of the proud state of New York,” Esquenazi told a group of students in 2015, a moment captured in a Buzzfeed profile of the bond queen. “That means that, for me, you are walking money. I own your body.” She has no problem sending bounty hunters to track down anyone who skip bail, and treats clients more like assets than people.
In the profile, Esquenazi described the way she taunted one of her clients to ensure his compliance. To send a message that freedom could be revoked at any time, she had someone greet the client with a bologna sandwich and milk cartoon — a standard meal for Rikers inmates — upon his release.
“The thing about defendants is no matter who they are — they can come in white, black, green or purple polka dots. They’re all dumb,” she told the New York Post in 2013. “Every single last one of them is stupid.”
The bond queen is active on Twitter, using the social media platform to blast proponents of criminal justice reform.
Esquenazi has also used Twitter to spew racially-charged rhetoric. She calledthe football players protesting police violence a “BUNCH OF DISRESPECTFUL, OVERPAID, THUGS” and retweeted a baseless claim that Muslim-American activist Linda Sarsour is a terrorist.
Empire’s leadership seems to view Gonzalez as the candidate most likely to maintain the status quo. The district attorney believes defendants should be held on bail for nonviolent felonies or misdemeanors, so it is unsurprising that the company would back him financially.
It makes much less sense for Gonzalez, who has positioned himself as a champion of criminal justice reform, to accept Empire’s contributions.
On its own, Gonzalez’ refusal to take on bail reform as part of his campaign indicates the district attorney is out of step with bipartisan legislators, celebrities, policy experts, judges, and civil rights groups who are fighting for the rights of poor defendants. Gonzalez says he wants to help low-level defendants, but his support of bail translates to support of an abusive practice that traps those defendants in a cycle of poverty and criminal justice involvement. He says he agrees with the decision to shut down Rikers, but endorses the system that has funneled countless defendants into the notoriously violent facility.
To go so far as to accept money from a woman whose career depends on shaking down the very people he professes to help may indicate that Gonzalez isn’t the reformer he says he is. Nevertheless, he still paints himself as someone who is fair on bail and understands that the current system must change. “Now the standard [for bail] is risk of return,” Gonzalez said during a recent candidate forum. “We really should be asking for bail only when public safety demands it and not simply risk of return.”
“I stand with all of you to say that I believe that we can end mass incarceration while continuing to keep our city and our borough safe,” he said. In reality, the predatory bail bond industry from which he is profiting is fueling mass incarceration of Brooklyn residents.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, the New York Daily News reported that Gonzalez returned campaign donations made by bail bond companies. “Our campaign’s progressive supporters in the criminal justice reform community understand that Eric Gonzalez is a champion for bail reform and other significant reforms of the criminal justice system,” spokeswoman Lupe Todd-Medina told the publication.