Behind the Greek helmet in the front window and the lobby bedecked with memorabilia from “Goodfellas” and “Scarface,” George Zouvelos sits in the back office of his company, Spartan Bail Bonds on Manhattan's Baxter Street. He's positioned in front of two computers, with law books at arm's reach, a few yards from where his staffers are freeing people from jail—for a price—in what he calls “a very gray part of the criminal justice system.”
When a judge opts not to release a defendant and sets bail that's higher than he can pay in cash, a commercial bail bond agent decides, in effect, whether the guy stays in or goes free. The role accords bond agents little prestige, but much power. The 1872 Supreme Court decision that gave bail agents many of their expansive rights declared that “their dominion is a continuation of the original imprisonment.” Zouvelos, a hulking, affable man who once was an aide to Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes, explains it this way: “I don't need a search warrant to come into your house. I don't have to follow extradition treaties. Sometimes [NYPD] Warrants Section guys will say to me, ‘This guy's in Connecticut there's nothing we can do—at least not now. Is there anything you can do?' And I'm like, ‘There's a lot I can do. I have a car.'” Bail bond agents can also detain a person and, at their discretion, withdraw his bond and throw him back in jail, he says. “I can knock down somebody's door and take them in the middle of the night.”
While no agency keeps data on who pays bails in the city, bail bondsmen aren't considered big players in the New York criminal justice arena. The State Insurance Department, which regulates the industry because surety bail bonds are a form of insurance, lists only 33 registered bail bond agents in the city and around 100 in the state. (For comparison, in 2005 alone the state licensed 128,000 life and health insurance salespeople.) New York is considered a tough place to do bail business. Besides passing an exam and posting a $5,000 bond, applicants for a bail bond license must undergo an extensive background check. And once they start writing bonds, they'll earn fees that can be much lower than neighboring states: The premium on a typical $100,000 bond is $10,000 in New Jersey but only around $6,200 in New York.
It can also be tough to find bounty hunters (or “bail enforcement agents,” as they're more genteely known), who track fugitives and save bail agents money. In fact, there is not a single licensed bail enforcement agent in the state, probably because few applicants can post the required $500,000 bond. That hasn't stopped at least 14 schools from registering to train bail enforcement agents (“Feel the THRILL OF THE HUNT every time you search for and take another fugitive down!” reads one school's ad), but it has driven bounty hunters—who can be deputized by any bail agent—underground, Zouvelos says. And that leads to trouble with the police.
“No one wants to be in this business with one hand tied behind their back,” says Joseph Best, an 11-year veteran of the bond business who operates out of a second-floor office in Jamaica. “Anybody who does bail in New York is on a fool's errand because they release people to us and then they restrict our supervisions.” Best—a former nightclub owner who became a bail agent in order to retain his pistol permit after his establishment was shut down—has been fined by state regulators for allegedly overcharging a client and once angered a judge so much she got his sponsoring insurance company to drop him. Three of Best's deputies were arrested recently while they were trying to pick up a fugitive in Manhattan. Best complains about this treatment. But he acknowledges that his industry has a terrible reputation. Zouvelos agrees: “People think we're Chico's Bail Bonds,” he says, a reference to the seedy sponsors of the fictional “Bad News Bears.”
As the founder and president of a new state association of bail bond agents, Zouvelos is trying to change that image, and increase the political power of the people who underwrite bail in New York. Their legislative wish list includes higher premiums and easier recovery of forfeited bail—money that bond agents lose when a defendant skips. Even after a fugitive is returned to custody, it's so difficult to get bail back from city judges that some bond agents say they don't bother with the courts and instead seek to seize the collateral. “We don't even go after the defendants,” says Bronx-based bond agent Allison Palais. “I just go after the families.”
An easier business environment for bail bond agents could mean more people living at liberty before trial. But the problem for many New Yorkers is that neither they nor their families have much to offer to secure a bail bond. When he writes bail upstate, Zouvelos considers tractors, cows and horses as collateral. No such luck in the city, he says. “You gotta understand, in Manhattan, nobody owns shit here.” And even when a family does own property, attempts to write bail against it are sometimes foiled by a few city judges who insist on fully-secured bail, which essentially requires property with assessed value worth twice the price of the bond. Other judges require up to half of a bond to be secured with cash. Either requirement can be a deal killer.
Zouvelos—who says he must have his clients attain an overall 98.75 percent court appearance rate for him to make a profit—says he keeps his wards on track by explaining that they have a vested interest in staying free. “In a case like this,” he tells them, “being dressed to the nines and coming in from the back of the courtroom is going to be a lot better than coming in from behind the bench, in handcuffs, looking like a skell.” Zouvelos also imposes strict conditions on clients, requiring some to attend anger management classes or drug treatment.
A number of studies in recent years have claimed that defendants out on bond tend to show up for court more reliably than those out on their own recognizance. The bail bond industry, which doubled in size nationwide from 1997 to 2002, points to those numbers with pride. Mike Whitlock of the American Surety Company, a national leader in the industry, boasts, “The only guaranteed form of release is through a bail agent.”
Critics of commercial bonds—which the American Bar Association wants to abolish—doubt that it's bail bond agents' watchful eyes that deter defendants from fleeing. More likely, they say, is that bond agents cherry-pick defendants who are more affluent and more likely to show up anyway. “The bonding-for-profit system excludes those who don't have the cash to participate,” says Tim Murray of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a reform advocacy group. “It doesn't exclude successful criminals.”
But while they approach the criminal justice system with the cool detachment of businesspeople protecting their profits, many bond agents see the same flaws that Murray observes. When it comes to bail, Zouvelos says, “There is a profound injustice for the poor in this city.”