The national bail industry is bankrolling a Facebook campaign against New York state’s new bail reform law. From December through this month, the American Bail Coalition, which represents bail bonds insurers, has spent around $8,000 on promotional posts that have generated between 965,000 and 1.1 million impressions in New York state alone. The industry group has also spent thousands more on Facebook ads across the country, a small fraction of which have generated impressions in New York.
While many of the New York-focused ads note that they are paid for by a man named “Christoph Blaylock,” most do not disclose their ties to the bail industry, which has already begun to suffer financial losses since the law went into effect in January.
Progressive advocates of the bail reform law argue the ads contain misleading and, in some cases, outright false information.
One ad from a page called “Safer Communities” generated at least 90,000 impressions in New York through the second half of January. The ad urges members of the public to mobilize against the “dangerous new” law and provides a link to contact lawmakers. The post has 481 shares and 246 comments, which feature dozens of New York residents complaining about the law.
But neither the ad nor the Safer Communities’ Facebook page mention the American Bail Coalition. Its “about” tab describes itself as a “volunteer based online platform,” using the “power of voices” to advocate for “accountability” in the criminal justice system.
“What’s absolutely clear is that an industry, whose livelihood depends on continuing the bail system as it was before January 1st, is fighting hard and dirty,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who called the ads “misleading.” “The bottom line is that fear mongering is what the bail industry is using in order to roll back bail reform,” she continued.
Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, confirmed that the ads came from his organization, but insisted they were not meant to be deceptive. “Our intent certainly was to make it clear that it was us, and it’s probably something I’ll revisit when I get off this call,” he said.
Advocates also criticized the industry group’s posts for sharing what they considered to be false information. Another January advertisement, from a page called “New York Bail Reform - The Reckless ‘Movement’ Threatening Public Safety” claims that the new reform law eliminates strangulation from bail eligibility. Marie Ndiaye, Supervising Attorney of the Legal Aid Society’s Decarceration Project, said this was false, noting that judges can, in fact, choose to set bail for felony strangulation cases.
“I think they are trying to scare people. They can’t win this argument on the merits,” she said, “So they are trying to win on politics by doing the tough-on-crime trope that comes around every election year.”
Asked about the strangulation claim, Clayton said that his organization had borrowed language from a list put out by the New York state’s prosecutors’ association. Gothamist/WNYC found one such list online, which does reference many of the crimes referenced in the coalition’s posts, but does not mention strangulation.
Clayton argues the bail insurers' ads are building off an organic backlash to the bail reform law, which he asserts is taking away judges’ discretion counter-productively.
“We didn’t really have much of an impact at all really in the explosion of what’s happened,” he said. “People can claim we’re fear-mongering, but all we’re doing is passing along what the media is already doing, for the most part.”
Ndiaye acknowledged that the group’s spending on ads has been relatively small, but said it is one piece of a larger misinformation effort. “This is a drop in the bucket but it is part of a coordinated effort by law enforcement and DAs and the bail bond industry and even the media in some cases to undo these reforms based on politics and not policy,” she said.
For the bail industry, the power of the New York social media ads may be in helping stir up a debate that bleeds into other states, Clayton noted. “Candidly, we’re under the assumption that New York is lost, right?” he said. “So we look at the impact of this, in other states it’s useful. As other legislators are looking at this, they’re thinking to themselves we don’t want a mess like that.”
Bail industry forces have also been pouring money into lobbying in Albany. According to the state lobbying data, the Bail Bondsman Association of New York State spent $75,000 between January and July of last year lobbying a variety of state lawmakers on “bail bonds reform,” “criminal justice reform,” and a number of state bills. State filings list Mercury Public Affairs LLC as the association’s lobbyist and name a number of beneficial clients, including the American Bail Coalition.
State lobbying data from the second half of last year and the first months of this year is not yet available, but both Clayton and Michelle Esquenazi, a representative for the Bail Bondsman Association of New York State, indicated that the industry’s lobbying efforts are continuing.
"We always lobby on behalf of our great industry every single day, seven days a week," said Esquenazi. She added, “Capitalism prevails in the United States of America and our organization is not unlike any other great mom-and-pop shop set of entities that are successful throughout the nation.”
Last week, state Senate Democrats announced they are considering partial changes to the bail reform law. Democratic leaders have faced considerable pressure from law enforcement activists, and some may fear losing swing seats in November.