Accused thieves, drug dealers, gun-toting criminals, even suspected killers are being freed from New Jersey lockups before trial, thanks to the growing popularity of the criminal justice system’s version of the installment plan.
Their get-out-of-jail-almost-free cards are being bankrolled by a new breed of bail bondsmen, willing to take big risks on individuals who’ve proved over and over that they’re high risks, a Star-Ledger review of court documents shows, along with interviews with law enforcement officials, judges and victims of the new bail schemes.
Some are being set free on $75-a-week payment plans, an offer too good to pass up for criminal defendants who otherwise would be spending the months leading up to trial locked away in a spartan county jail.
“$0 down payment,” reads the sign in the window of Aaron Bail Bonds, beckoning inmates housed across the street at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack.
A company next door promises “Instant O% approval,” and another, ASAP Bail Bonds, offers the “Best Deals on the Strip.”
It’s all shorthand for the shadow deals criminal defendants are negotiating with bail bondsmen — a practice that, though not illegal, has attracted the attention of the state Commission of Investigation. The commission has opened a “broad-based” probe into the bail bond industry that will include a closer look at these deals, a law enforcement source said.
Before bail bond companies started offering payment plans, a defendant would usually pay the full premium, longtime bail bond agents said. Thus a $100,000 bond with a 10 percent cash option would have required a $10,000 premium payment to the bail bondsman. That money paid to the bail bondsman was not refundable even when the defendant was found not guilty.
But under the new deals being offered, some defendants are paying as little as 3 percent to a bail bondsman and putting the rest on a payment plan. The lower upfront cost has made it easier for more defendants to get out, officials say. However, when a defendant fails to make the payments, friends and family who have co-signed for the bond end up on the hook for the premium, a review of court records shows.
The Star-Ledger found dozens of lawsuits bail bond companies have filed in courthouses across the state against co-signers after defendants failed to keep up their end of the deal.
Industry in chaos
Prosecutors say the payment plan phenomenon has grown unchecked in recent years, upending a multimillion dollar bail industry responsible for ensuring defendants show up in court when they’re supposed to.
Intense competition among bail bond companies across the state is pushing down the percentage amounts of a bond that companies take from defendants to levels never seen before, prosecutors say.
“We’re concerned that the percentages are getting smaller and smaller and smaller, to 3 percent or less,” said Gene Rubino, the acting chief of staff for the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office. “It still remains such an unregulated industry.”
Officials from the state’s Department of Banking and Insurance, which regulates the bail industry, did not return repeated calls for comment.
Prosecutors say the deals effectively undermine a judge’s order, freeing defendants for amounts far less than a judge intended. Prosecutors say they regularly find that defendants set free on low-percentage bail return to court with a new charge pending.
“You’re lowering the defendant’s bail without the judge’s consent or approval,” said Assistant Prosecutor Roger Imhof, the deputy chief of the trial section for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. “A judge of the Superior Court is saying the bail should be $200,000, and a bail bond company is saying he’s ROR (released on his own recognizance).”
And, Rubino says, it undercuts a law passed in 2007 that allows prosecutors to inquire about the source of money put toward bail — an effort to prevent ill-gotten gains from financing a defendant’s bail. Rubino says it’s not hard for a defendant to prove that he came to his $1,000 payment legitimately. “As the percentages they’re asking for as down payments decrease, the more difficult it becomes for the state to learn the legitimacy of the funds,” Rubino said.
In most cases, neither judges nor prosecutors are aware that the deal has been cut since it’s an agreement made between the defendant and the bail bondsman. Judges set bonds but do not control what a defendant pays.
The state does not keep statistics on the number of defendants who have skipped bail while on a payment plan. But state judiciary figures for September, the last month for which statistics were available, show some 21,000 defendants listed as fugitives, including those who are out on bail or under their own recognizance.
Prosecutors say the installment plan only adds to the difficulty of getting defendants to show up in court. “It’s a problem when you have defendants skipping out on bail,” said Michael DeMarco, the chief assistant prosecutor for Passaic County. “All of a sudden the state has no defendant to prosecute.”
Veteran bail agents say bail bond companies that rely on a high volume of clients have fueled the shift, aggressively courting clients with low down payment offers as they try to corner the market on the state’s bail industry.
“How is it possible to survive on a 1 percent down payment?” asked Scott Berlin, the owner of Berlin Bail Bonds in Newark. “I’ve got to put gas in my car. How do you do it? They’ve destroyed an honorable business.”
Representatives of Aaron Bail Bonds did not return calls requesting comment and did not respond to a request for an interview after a reporter visited its Hackensack location. Stewart Miller, a lawyer who represents the company, said his clients would not comment.
Some agents say they’ve reluctantly turned to payment plan deals themselves just to stay afloat.
Robert Reichert, the owner of ASAP Bail Bonds, said he is no fan of the deals even though he advertises 1 percent payment plans outside his Hackensack business.
“It’s just to get them in,” said Reichert. “We’ve done some, but we don’t like to do it.”
But, Reichert says, with competitors pulling in customers by offering low-cost payment plans, he feels he has no choice.
Others in the business agree.
“You have to keep up with the market because if you don’t, you’re going to be out of business,” said Glenn Johnson, who manages Right Away Bail Bonds in Hillside. “I would love to get 10 percent upfront. … The bail process is being manipulated to the point where it’s giving people like me a black eye.”
This year, Right Away agreed to a payment plan for Wakir Bryant, a career criminal with a rap sheet for drug and weapons charges dating to 2000, and tattoos that vouch for his hard-earned reputation. “Go Hard,” read the tattoo on his right hand, “Go Home” the one on his left, according to a bail bondsman’s report.
The Right Away deal, made possible by an Essex County judge’s decision to reduce Bryant’s bail to $150,000, set the Belleville man free from the Essex County Jail while he waited to face a reckless manslaughter charge in the fatal shooting of a toddler two years ago.
Prosecutors say that during the early morning hours of Dec. 30, 2011, Bryant brought a stolen, loaded .45-caliber handgun into his girlfriend’s apartment in Newark and left it in his coat while he drifted off to sleep.
A single bullet from the gun entered 2-year-old Mikhy Robinson’s mouth at a downward angle, according to an appeals court decision in the case. Bryant was not charged with shooting the boy.
The SCI probe comes as the state’s bail industry increasingly finds itself under the microscope.
Gov. Chris Christie has called for state judges to deny bail for repeat violent offenders, a move that would align the state more closely with the federal system.
And there is some fear among bail agents that the state is considering a move to shift their role onto court officials through pretrial supervision programs.
Meanwhile, across the country, police and prosecutors are coping with the aftermath of discount deals.
In 2009, four Lakewood, Wash., police officers were killed in a coffee shop by Maurice Clemmons, an ex-bail bondsman released on a discounted bond deal six days before the killings.
Clemmons paid a bondsman just $8,000 — 4 percent of a $190,000 bail on a pending child-rape charge, according to a report in the Seattle Times.
Prosecutors say some New Jersey judges are reluctant to put a stop
to the new bail practices because doing so would interfere with a
contract between a bail bonds company and a defendant.
Others have railed against it.
In April, Bergen County’s presiding judge, Liliana DeAvila-Silebi, upped an accused gang member’s bail to $500,000 when she found out he had cut what she called a “side deal” with a bail bondsman that would allow his family to put up just $10,000 to cover 10 percent of a $350,000 bond and pay the rest in monthly installments of $250 a month, according to a report by the Cliffview Pilot, an online news source.
And in October 2011, Rasul McNeil-Thomas scored a payment plan deal to get himself freed from the Essex County Jail while he was awaiting trial for the May 2011 killing of William Johnson, a 45-year-old Newark police officer.
Johnson, a 16-year veteran, was off duty, picking up dinner at Texas Fried Chicken and Pizza on Lyons Avenue when he was fatally shot.
Police say Johnson was not the intended target but was killed while McNeil-Thomas was trying to get back at two women, including one who had quarreled with his mother earlier that day.
McNeil-Thomas’ release came after a judge knocked his bail down from $1.5 million to $250,000. He was returned to prison in October 2012 after his family had trouble making regular payments on his bail, Assistant Prosecutor Romesh Sukhdeo told a judge in August.
While he was locked up, a second bail bond company, Ace Bail Bonds of Jersey City, agreed to take $7,500 from McNeil-Thomas’ family as a partial payment toward the $25,000 premium and accepted his mother’s home as collateral to secure the $250,000 bond.
The remainder of the premium would be paid in monthly installments of $400 to $450, according to a transcript of a bail hearing held in August. And McNeil-Thomas would be required to check in twice a week.
The deal fell apart when a judge increased McNeil-Thomas’ bail to $500,000.
Ace’s owner, Al McCallen, said he doesn’t like making the deals because it exposes his company to large payouts if the bail is forfeited. But he said he has few options if he wants to compete with the new breed. “It’s cutthroat,” McCallen said. “These guys want it all. They’re greedy.”
Veterans of the bail industry, many of them second-generation bondsmen, fear the low-percentage deals will one day put them out of business unless the state steps in to regulate the industry.
Reform effort failed
Ron Olszowy of Nationwide Bail Bonds in Clifton tried to get state lawmakers to support a 2004 bill that would have required that no less than the full 10 percent be posted upfront for a premium.
Those efforts foundered when lawmakers expressed concern that such a measure would make it difficult for poor defendants to be set free before trial.
Olszowy thinks the lawmakers’ concerns might have been misplaced, considering the way the industry has evolved in the decade since. Now, he says, the responsibility to pay has been shifted onto co-signers, many of whom are “one step above indigent.”
“If you want to feel sorry for someone, feel sorry for the people who get roped into these 1 percent deals,” Olszowy says. “It’s making it hard for these people to survive.”
Lawyer Richard Blender says he’s seen the debate from both sides. He lobbied on behalf of Olszowy and others and now represents bail bond agents who employ the payment plan.
“They said it was discrimination against the poor,” Blender said of the legislative debate on the bill. “Rich people could get out of jail, but poor people couldn’t. It turned out to be foresight. If it had passed, they wouldn’t have known what to do with all the people in jail.”
The deals have led to economic hardships for those left to pick up the tab.
Take Gregory Hargrove, who works at a fast-food chain in Newark.
Hargrove agreed to be a co-signer for his childhood friend, Gene Williams, on his $80,000 bond after Williams was arrested on charges of aggravated assault and unlawful possession of a handgun in 2009.
Williams, 23, got Aaron Bail Bonds to post his $80,000 bond in February 2010, agreeing to pay $100 a week toward the $8,000 premium, according to a lawsuit Aaron’s lawyers filed. Williams made his last weekly payment 10 months later, around the time he pleaded guilty to the weapons charge, the lawsuit claims.
Unable to get its money back, Aaron sued Williams, Hargrove and eight other co-signers last year in Essex County Superior Court. In May, an Essex County judge issued a judgment against the co-signers for nearly $6,400, court papers show.
Hargrove said he was told he had to pay the entire amount. In a handwritten letter to the court, Hargrove said he was paying child support for two children, had gotten into his own legal trouble, and his hours at work were being scaled back. “I am not in the condition or making enough money to help make payments for his bails bond,” Hargrove wrote.
“People who work hard and are trying to do the right thing, they shouldn’t take that big amount from you,” Hargrove, 23, said in an interview. “That’s too much. If I had known they were going to hit me for the $6,000 I would have gone to the judge.”
Hargrove said that every week $100 is taken out of his paycheck to cover Williams’ premium.
The deal Wakir Bryant, charged in the toddler’s death in 2011, arranged this year with Right Away Bail Bonds was not his first. Twice before, he got bail bond companies to arrange payment deals.
In one, he and his family members made payments of $250 every two weeks on a $100,000 bond after he was charged with possessing heroin, according to a lawsuit. In another, he paid $150 a week on a $30,000 bond for a charge of unlawful possession of a weapon.
Both times he failed to pay what he owed, leading to lawsuits by bail bond companies seeking the $12,000 he and his co-signers owed.
The deal he made with Right Away would be his last.
On Oct. 3, Bryant was found unconscious in a car parked at the intersection of Peshine and Renner avenues in the city’s South Ward. He’d been fatally shot in what Essex County prosecutors have described as a targeted killing. His killer has not been caught.
The bill for $15,000 — 10 percent of his $150,000 bond on the manslaughter charge — is still due. And Glenn Johnson, Right Away’s manager, said he’ll have to collect it from Bryant’s co-signers.