Several years ago, Italian photographer Clara Vannucci was hanging out in a bar in TriBeCa, New York when she met a burly, Greek man name Bobby Zouvelos. The two struck up a conversation and Vannucci, who had recently photographed inside the notorious Riker’s Island jail, explained to Zouvelos what she had seen. Zouvelos mentioned that he and his brother George worked at jails too; he was a bail bondsman.
Intrigued by the concept — Italy doesn’t have bail bondsmen — Vannucci asked the man to introduce her to his world, a rarely discussed underworld of bail bondsmen, defendants, and bounty hunters.
After following George and Bobby Zouvelos for the better part of two years, Vannucci collected the work into a recently released book, titled “Bail Bond.” Vannucci shares some of her work with Business Insider here, but you can check out the rest at her website or in the book.
Bail bondsmen act as guarantors in the criminal justice system. They are a combination between insurance salesmen, social workers, and private policemen.
This is George Zouvelos, a bail bondsman based in Brooklyn. Vannucci was introduced to Zouvelos by his brother Bobby, who she met in a bar.
Zouvelos is known as the 'Bail Boss.' When someone is arrested and can't afford to pay their bail, Zouvelos offers to pay it in exchange for a fee. This fee is non-refundable even if the defendant does everything right, appears in court, and is found innocent.
Most bondsmen charge defendants (or whoever is paying for the bond) 10-15% of the bail amount. On a $US100,000 bail bond, bondsmen can pocket $US10,000.
Most crimes that Zouvelos writes bonds for are drug offenses, gun possession, assault, and robbery. Bonds for those offenses ranges between $US1,000-$10,000. More serious crimes like sex offenses can have bonds that are upwards of $US100,000.
As part of the bail agreement, defendants must follow certain rules such as meeting with parole officers and showing up for various court dates. If defendants fail to follow the rules, they become fugitives.
Bondsmen like Zouvelos have a lot riding on keeping track of the defendant. If the defendant skips town, the bondsman has to pay the court the entire sum of the bail.
One bad bond can erase months of good bonds. One bondsman told the New York Times that he had to write 17 good bonds to make back the money he lost on a bad bond for $US100,000.
To avoid that, bondsmen usually hire bounty hunters to track down their missing defendants. Soon after meeting Zouvelos, Vannucci tagged along with a group of bounty hunters that work for him.
The group went out at night to the projects in Jamaica, Queens to track down one of Zouvelos' defendants who had failed to follow the bail rules.
Most often, Zouvelos' clients live in notoriously bad neighborhoods like East New York, Jamaica, Bed-Stuy, and rough parts of the Bronx and Harlem. It makes tracking down fugitives an intense experience.
Bounty hunters spend most of their time staking out houses, talking with neighbours and relatives, and going door-to-door to ask people if they've seen the defendant. 'It's a very long process to find the defendants,' says Vannucci.
When the bounty hunters show up to the defendant's house, they never give people warning. They open the windows or doors and head right in. 'It's dangerous because you never know what you will find,' says Vannucci.
Bounty hunters and bondsmen can do this because they force whoever pays for the bond to sign a contract giving legal permission to the bondsman to search their house without a warrant, as well as the defendant and his relatives' houses.
The first time Vannucci went with the bounty hunters, they made her wear a bulletproof vest. The experience was so nerve-racking that she didn't get any pictures. She began going with them regularly and, while nothing dangerous or violent ever happened while she was there, the situation never stopped being tense.
While lots of bounty hunters carry guns, it is extremely difficult to get a gun licence in New York City. Because of that, the bounty hunters that Vannucci worked with most often carried tasers.
After working with the bounty hunters, Vannucci realised that bondsmen were the real heart of the operation. 'Bondsmen have the power and faculty to hire bounty hunters,' explains Vannucci. 'You cannot understand the bounty-hunting system if you don't understand the bondsmen system.'
One of the toughest parts for Vannucci was when they found the defendants. Usually, they found the defendants among family, who were upset that their relative had to go back to jail. Sometimes, the families tried to argue with the bounty hunters.
Many in the legal industry hate the bail bond business because they believe it preys on poor and middle-class defendants (many of whom are innocent), and who can't afford bail.
Because bond companies don't compete on price, they have a huge incentive to collude with law enforcement, lawyers, and the justice system to ensure that bails are set high.
Bail bonds and bounty hunting are a huge business. Because so many people get arrested and so many can't afford bail, there is a lot of money to go around. In addition, most defendants do fulfil their obligations and show up to court. That makes bondsmen a lot of money.
The concept of bail bondsmen is extremely foreign to other countries. In England, Canada, and many other countries, agreeing to pay a defendant's bail in exchange for money is a serious crime.
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