Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

The bail bond company financing Brooklyn DA candidate Eric Gonzalez

The bail bond company financing Brooklyn DA candidate Eric Gonzalez


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 legislatorscelebritiespolicy expertsjudges, 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.

Arpaio disgrace complete, but Maricopa County must now deal with damage

Joe Arpaio

Arpaio disgrace complete, but Maricopa County must now deal with damage


He was once praised for being “America’s toughest sheriff.” But as of yesterday, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was convicted of a crime of his own.

Arpaio’s rise and fall mirror the way America has looked at criminal justice in the 21st Century. Once an icon of the right, Arpaio’s approach to policing has proven to be ineffective. For many, he was an embarrassment even before his conviction.

Arpaio was convicted earlier this week of criminal contempt for defying a judge’s order to stop criminally profiling Latinos and turn them over to federal authorities. He faces up to six months in jail and has vowed to appeal his conviction.

He was first elected sheriff in 1992 and was the top law enforcement officer in Maricopa County until 2016, when he lost a bid for a seventh term in office.

During his 24-year tenure Arpaio gained national attention for making prisoners in the Maricopa County jail wear pink underwear, and setting up tents in 120 degree weather for prisoners to sleep in.

He also gained a national reputation for being virulently anti-immigrant, conducting raids that locked up numerous Latinos, many of whom turned out to be American citizens, and joined Donald Trump in insisting that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

Under Arpaio people in jail were also forced to give birth while shackled and the number of people who died while in custody was significantly higher than in other jails.

In the end, Arpaio’s approach was not only barbaric — it didn’t actually stop crime. “Although MCSO is adept at self-promotion and is an unquestionably “tough” law-enforcement agency, under its watch violent crime rates recently have soared, both in absolute terms and relative to other jurisdictions, said a 2008 report written by the conservative Goldwater Foundation that critiqued Arpaio. “It has diverted resources away from basic law-enforcement functions to highly publicized immigration sweeps, which are ineffective in policing illegal immigration and in reducing crime generally.”

And Arpaio’s obsessions came with a cost. At last count, legal fees for lawsuits filed against him cost over $140 million to taxpayers. What’s more, response times and cases solved lagged behind other police departments since Arpaio devoted so much time to undocumented immigrants, using resources that should have been used for regular police work. And courts repeatedly ruled that Arpaio’s actions were illegal, and violated the constitutional rights of many of the people the sheriff was sworn to protect.

Now, the man who defeated him in 2016, Sheriff Paul Penzone, must clean up the mess and try to win back the trust of Latinos and many others who lost all faith in a criminal justice system that gave someone like Arpaio so much power.

As Casey Tolan previously reported at Slate, Penzone’s record so far has been mixed, with Penzone reversing a decision not to hand over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities a week after he announced it.

But Penzone has pledged to go back to making his office an effective and reasonable police force. Some people have called Penzone boring, and after a generation of Arpaio’s shenanigans, boring sounds pretty good.

More in Explainers

Illicit affair of Kentucky prosecutor leads to murder conviction being thrown out

Illicit affair of Kentucky prosecutor leads to murder conviction being thrown out


A Kentucky murder conviction has unraveled amid allegations that the elected prosecutor was having an affair with the lead detective on the case. The prosecutor’s office is also being accused of failing to disclose critical evidence to the defense.

David Wayne Dooley was convicted of the 2012 murder of Michelle Mockbee and sentenced to life in prison. The two were coworkers at the Thermo Scientific facility in Florence and Dooley was convicted even though prosecutors didn’t have any physical evidence that proved Dooley’s guilt.

Prosecutors said Dooley was the killer because he wouldn’t admit to having found her body, and because Mockbee’s husband, who also worked at Thermo Scientific, said he’d had issues with Dooley in the past.

But Dooley’s 2014 conviction was thrown out in May after Boone Circuit Court Judge James R. Schrand ruled that evidence that could have aided his defense was kept from his defense attorneys.

The withheld evidence involved a man visible on security cameras at Thermo Fisher Electric walking up to an outside door and attempting to enter about 10 hours before Mockbee was found beaten to death outside of the building.

The video of the unknown man was not handed over to defense attorneys before trial.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear asked for the hearing that led to the conviction being thrown out. Beshear’s office did not support a new trial for Dooley, but said the hearing was necessary to make sure proper procedure was followed.

Beshear’s office took over the case after questionable conduct by Kentucky Commonwealth Attorney Linda Tally Smith, and will be responsible for retrying Dooley. After Dooley was convicted it came out that Tally Smith, who is married to a district court judge, was having an affair with then-Boone County Sheriff’s investigator Bruce McVay, the lead detective on the case.

Tally Smith and McVay contradicted each other at the postconviction hearing with McVay claiming he told Tally Smith about the video of the unknown man before the trial began and Tally Smith claiming she knew nothing about the video until after the trial was over.

Tally Smith has said the affair began after the Dooley trial concluded and lasted for six months. She has refused to resign as Commonwealth Attorney for Boone and Gallatin counties and will face a challenger when she runs for reelection in 2018.

More disturbing is a long letter Tally Smith wrote to McVay but says she never sent. Portions of that letter were published by the Northern Kentucky Tribunethat said “Even if I was aware that you had lied here or there on cases, I wouldn’t have wavered in that loyalty to you and ‘having your back.’”

A special prosecutor has been appointed to look into Tally Smith’s actions.

More in Podcasts