Flanked by two bodyguards, Michelle Esquenazi, owner of Empire Bail Bonds, took a seat in front of 30 or so sleepy teenagers in a Long Island high school. Her subject was supposed to be the criminal justice system, but she seemed more interested in scaring the kids straight, reports BuzzFeed. “The majority of bail bond consumers are moms and dads and aunts bailing out first-time offenders,” she said. “The faces of the people I bail out today look a lot like yours.” What followed was a primer on private bail bonding, the controversial industry that lifted Esquenazi from poverty and that, depending on whom you ask, is either an example of liberties afforded to people in the criminal justice system or a manifestation of its inequalities.
If you skip out on court, your agent will hunt you down and bring you back to the judge. If the agent succeeds, the bail bond company won't have to pay your bail. This system means agents go to incredible lengths to make sure you keep up your end of the bargain. “Bail bonding is the only part of the criminal justice system that does not cost taxpayers any money,” says Dennis Sew of Professional Bail Agents of the United States. Critics call the bail bond industry predatory, a system where headhunters exploit lower-income people and minorities. Its stubborn survival in the U.S. — the Philippines is the only other nation that permits it — rests on a paradoxical concept of freedom: an irrevocable right that can nonetheless be bought and sold. The Pretrial Justice Institute says 53 percent of those accused of felonies are unable to post bail on their own.