Who is losing out under New Jersey’s criminal justice changes? Bail bondsmen

 Three large file cabinets contain information on those who have posted bail through Roman's Bail Bonds in Woodbury, New Jersey. Owner Antonio Roman says the state's new bail policy threatens his livelihood. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Three large file cabinets contain information on those who have posted bail through Roman's Bail Bonds in Woodbury, New Jersey. Owner Antonio Roman says the state's new bail policy threatens his livelihood. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ron Olszowy has been issuing bail bonds for 45 years. “It’s like going to adult Disneyland every day,” he said.

In 1992 he wrote the most notorious bond he would ever sign: a $2 million bail bond for 17-year-old Amy Fisher — later dubbed the Long Island Lolita — who had been accused of shooting the wife of her then boyfriend, body shop owner Joey Buttafuoco.

Olszowy, a resident of Clifton, said he made a good living as a bail bondsman; he bought and sold a few homes, and he sent his daughter to Penn State and graduate school.

But bail bondsmen will become all but extinct in New Jersey come Sunday.

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“It’s gonna destroy us,” said Olszowy. “It’s disappointing. You get attached to it.”

As part of a criminal justice system overhaul coming to New Jersey in 2017, criminal defendants will no longer have to pay cash bail to be released from jail as they await trial.

Instead, judges will detain them until trial or release them for free, either on their own recognizance or with some conditions, such as GPS monitoring or a curfew.

But cash bail — along with the bail bondsmen who underwrite it — will be no more.

‘We’re not dealing with Boy Scouts’

There are 738 licensed bail bondsmen in New Jersey, according to the state Department of Banking and Insurance. Many, like Olszowy, oppose bail reform.

It should not come as a surprise that a bail bondsman would fight the elimination of cash bail — more than 80 percent of Olszowy’s business is bail bonds — but he said the reforms set to take effect in New Jersey are bad policy.

For one, he said, the criminal defendants being released may pose a threat to the public.

“People forget that you’re dealing with people who’ve been in jail, they’ve been in prison. And they’re there for a reason,  they broke the law,” said Olszowy. “We’re not dealing with Boy Scouts.”

bail bondsman ron olszowyBail bondsman Ron Olszowy said criminal justice reforms taking effect in New Jersey in 2017 are going to “destroy” his business. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

Second, he said, bail reforms will cost New Jersey taxpayers a fortune.

A Towson University study cited by two bail bondsmen who spoke to WHYY estimated that bail reform in New Jersey would cost nearly $66 million in the first year alone. (The school was paid $25,000 by the American Bail Coalition to conduct the study, according to Daraius Irani, the study’s lead author.)

Another analysis by the state attorney general’s office found that it was impossible to know the costs of bail reform in the first year.

The Towson “study somehow came to a different conclusion without any input from the parties that will actually be administering these reforms,” said Pete McAleer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Judiciary. “It is a study that was requested and paid for by the bail bond industry, which will be impacted financially by the new law that takes effect on Jan. 1.”

Bail bondsmen also question whether New Jersey officials will have the adequate resources to carry out the duties that bondsmen and bounty hunters do now.

For example, bondsmen bear some responsibility and have a financial stake in ensuring a criminal defendant shows up for court. Sometimes they dispatch bounty hunters to find people who have skipped their court date.

Antonio Roman, a bondsman in Woodbury, recently tracked a Camden defendant through Chicago for three days before finding him.

“We spent over … $7,000 just to find this guy. We didn’t bill the state of New Jersey. We didn’t bill nobody,” said Roman. “We ate the charges, at no cost to the taxpayer.”

McAleer, the Judiciary spokesman, said that state and local law enforcement will work more closely with their counterparts across the country to find defendants who have fled New Jersey.

The state court system will also hire pretrial services officers to monitor defendants released from jail and remind them of their court appearances.

Both bondsmen agreed that poverty should not determine whether a person remains stuck in jail or goes free.

“It’s not a crime to be poor. I feel badly for those people. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes,” said Olszowy. “But by the same token, once again, when we get to the repeat offenders, the ones who are back and back and back and back. We can’t feel too badly for those people. That’s their lifestyle. It’s not going to change.”

Roman agreed that poor people should not be confined to jail because they cannot post bail or pay fines for traffic offenses and other very minor crimes. But he said that the best way to avoid facing bail is to stay on the right side of the law. “Don’t commit a crime,” said Roman. “If they can’t afford to get out of jail, don’t commit the crime.”

What’s next

Olszowy writes other types of bonds and plans to expand that part of his business once the criminal justice reforms take effect in New Jersey.

For Roman, the prospect of losing his livelihood is disheartening. He has run Roman’s Bail Bonds, which gets more than 90 percent of its revenue from bail bonds, for a decade. His son works there now.

Come January, though, he may have to cut costs, ramp up the private investigation side of his business, or find a new profession altogether.

“It sucks. You figure, I’ve been doing this for so long that that’s what I know how to do. For me to get a new career at 40 years old … I wouldn’t know what to do.”

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