Reforming our bail system and empowering our disenfranchised communities

GREGORIO MAYERS | 10/24/2017, 11:51 a.m.
The report of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, entitled “A More Just New ...
Empty jail cell, prison John McAfee/CNN

The report of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, entitled “A More Just New York City,” should be commended for an excellent analysis of our criminal justice system and the ineffective use of our jails, for solid, compelling arguments on why Rikers Island Jail should be closed and, more importantly, for addressing our archaic bail system that clearly hurts poor defendants.

Advocates and lawyers from district attorney offices and criminal justice organizations around the country have begun to organize around this issue and are proposing alternative criminal justice reforms. These reforms to current policies focus on nonviolent defendants who are charged with misdemeanor offenses and who pose no flight of risk.

According to the Commission report, in 2016, 249,776 criminal cases were arraigned in New York City—82 percent on misdemeanor charges and 18 percent on felony charges—and 90 percent of the detained defendants charged with misdemeanor offenses were considered minimal to moderate risk. The report also indicates that nearly half of these misdemeanors were resolved at arraignment. The status of the remaining defendants was left to judges, who through oral arguments, determined whether to release the defendants on their own recognizance or set bail.

In New York State and across the country, the bail system ensures that defendants return to their court appearances. Today, more than 95 percent of defendants return to court for their appearance.

Bail bonds companies, for many years, have continued to profit from a system that preys on poor, minority young men who comprise the majority of those arrested. Here is where the situation becomes challenging and frustrating. By law, bail should be based on the financial resources of the defendant pursuant to the current bail statues. However, the financial circumstances of the defendants are seldom taken into consideration when bail amounts are being determined. If the judge decides to set an unreasonable bail for these low -level offenses, many of these defendants cannot afford to post bail and more than 45,000 of them end up spending unnecessary time on Rikers Island.

Further, the NYC Bail Statute provides for nine different forms of bail, but within the five boroughs, what is offered to defendants and their families are cash bail and the traditional insurance bond that requires 10 percent of the bail amount. This practice clearly presents a financial hardship for this population, which is usually poor or working poor. More than 80 percent of these families cannot make afford to post bail

For years no one has pressured the Legislature or the governor to reform the current practice. But in light of the recent suicide of Kalief Browder, arrested at 16 for allegedly stealing a book bag, a crime he claimed he did not commit, the issue has become a hot topic for community leaders and clergy members, who often accompany the defendants’ parents to court arraignments and bail hearings. Browder sat in a Rikers Island cell without a trial and had to endure the abuse of other inmates and guards because his mother could not afford to post the bail of $3000. He committed suicide after serving three years on Rikers Island.