The Courts & Legal Services Committee and the Fire & Criminal Justice Services Committee recently held a joint hearing, ‘Examining the New York Bail System and the Need for Reform.’ The hearing, chaired by Council Member Rory Lancman and Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, looked at how to reform our dysfunctional bail system.
“Our bail system is failing us,” said Council Member Lancman. “Too many people are detained on Rikers not because they have been convicted of a crime, but simply because they are too poor to make bail. This hurts defendants and it hurts taxpayers too, who pay $125 million each year to keep pretrial detainees on Rikers.”
A recent New York Law Journal op-ed by Council Member Lancman and his Legislative Counsel Molly Cohen detailed why New York City deserves a bail system that not only ensures that defendants return for court appearances, but that does not punish people for their poverty, is not racially discriminatory, does not distort case outcomes, and runs efficiently. The current bail system is far from achieving this goal: 85% of defendants with bail set at $500 or less can’t make bail at arraignment and 48% of defendants with bail of less than $1,000 never post it, even though 46% of all pretrial detainees will be acquitted, have their cases dismissed or receive a sentence without any jail time at all (not even time served).
The hearing explored the creation of a citywide bail fund, along with a wide range of other possibilities for reform. Testimony was given by: the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice; the Center for Court Innovation; NYC Criminal Justice Agency; Office of the Queens District Attorney; Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia; Pretrial Justice Institute; The Legal Aid Society; The Bronx Defenders; Brooklyn Defender Services; The Bronx Freedom Fund; Brooklyn Community Bail Fund; Human Rights Watch; Vera Institute of Justice; and the Prisoner Re-entry Initiative at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The Director of Washington D.C.’s Pretrial Services Agency testified on that city’s success at substantially reducing the use of monetary bail:
“Any criminal justice system which looks to provide the most fair treatment of its pretrial defendant population, while maintaining the safety of its community, must embrace a robust preventive detention statutory framework. While no system can absolutely guarantee the future success or failure of a released defendant pending his or her next court appearance, Washington D.C.’s example shows that reducing the use of monetary bail while virtually abolishing commercial bond, can keep people out of jail while ensuring people make their court appearances: 85-90% of arrestees are released at their first appearance before the judge and 88% make it to all of their court appearances,” said Cliff Keenan, Director of Washington D.C.’s Pretrial Services Agency.
Several legal service providers testified about the pressure and problems their clients face when they are detained pretrial and the success of alternatives including supervised release:
“The current bail system is inefficient, unfair and is costing the city millions of dollars while doing a poor job of protecting public safety,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Practice at The Legal Aid Society of New York. “Having bail set forces people to plead guilty so that they can return to their homes, jobs and families and avoid being held at Rikers Island. NYC can do better. We should move away from cash bail on low level misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies and adopt procedures such as community supervision which have shown to produce fairer results while better protecting the public.”
“New York should lead the nation in bail reform by eradicating money bail and ensuring that justice is never determined by the size of one’s bank account,” said Justine Olderman, Criminal Defense Practice Managing Director of the Bronx Defenders.
“The overuse of cash bail and insurance company bond does not reflect the important tenet in our law, which is that someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services. “By setting bail and holding someone in jail prior to a conviction, the punishment happens first and the decision about guilt or innocence happens later. This is backwards and troubling, it hurts a lot of people, it costs a lot of money and it is morally wrong. NYC should follow the federal courts and other state courts that focus on setting conditions for release that a person can meet or releasing a person on their own recognizance.”