Earlier this summer, Gov. Cuomo stood in front of 60,000 concert-goers in Central Park at the Global Citizen Festival and promised to end cash bail. He followed his announcement with a tweet saying: “Cash bail means that if you’re rich, you get to walk and if you’re poor, and you can’t make bail, you sit in jail. That isn’t justice. We’re going to end the cash bail system once and for all.”
Only time will tell if his announcement is a true commitment or an empty campaign promise.
Headed back to Albany for his third term with a large new Democratic majority in the state Senate, the governor may have the political capital needed to make this happen next year; directly impacted people and grassroots organizations will continue to apply pressure. In the meantime, however, the bail industry is wreaking havoc on black and brown communities living in poverty, without ample oversight or consequences from Cuomo’s administration.
There is action the governor can take today to mitigate the harm bail companies are causing families — and it starts with strengthening his own agencies’ newly proposed bail-bond industry regulations.
In fiscal year 2017 alone, more than 12,000 New York City families relinquished $16 to $27 million to the private bail bonds industry. Families seeking bail know that the consequences of a loved one being jailed, for even a few days, can be long-lasting and even fatal — causing family care crises, job loss and other long-term financial loss.
Our report “Selling Off Our Freedom” exposed how the industry takes advantage of people at their most vulnerable. Bail bond agents have essentially unlimited power to say yes or no to issuing a bond when they make demands. Bail contracts routinely give agents the power to invade the homes and jobs of people and their loved ones who co-sign, track their phones and cars, send people back to jail without recourse and more.
As part of the Bail Bond Accountability Coalition, we called on Cuomo and the state’s Department of Financial Services to investigate the widespread malpractice of the bail industry. In a series of listening sessions, DFS heard about the financial damage, illegal overcharges, stolen collateral, misrepresentations and misconduct of an unnecessary industry.
The new regulations were proposed to mandate the timely return of collateral and premiums, increase reporting and information provided to people seeking bail and clarify existing rules that have been violated with impunity — for example, that bail agents cannot charge extra fees.
Unfortunately, the regulations proposed by DFS are weak, barely scratch the surface of these problems and do not use the state’s power to shift the fundamental power imbalance which benefits bail companies. Instead of banning invasive terms and practices, the new rules require only that they are listed in the contracts. Even as DFS acknowledges that vulnerable people have very little negotiating ability, they offer no solution that would actually even the playing field when securing a bail bond.
Cuomo’s proposed regulations should explicitly limit bail agents’ ability to jail people, restrict abusive contract terms and require real accountability from the insurance companies that back bail bond agents. Most importantly, we need a zero-tolerance approach to misconduct by bail bond companies and their insurers.
With a new term and large majorities for his party in both houses, it’s time for Cuomo to get to work and show his promise to end the unjust bail system was real.