The Human Costs of Cash Bail in NYC

Scott M. Stringer | 3/26/2019, 8 a.m.
Across the nation, more and more states are recognizing that America’s system of cash bail has for too long kept ...
Scott Stringer Office of City Comptroller Scott Stringer

Across the nation, more and more states are recognizing that America’s system of cash bail has for too long kept people behind bars, most of them people of color, for simply lacking the money to pay bail -- and now New York seems poised to join others that have enacted real reform.

Amen to that, I say, and my hope is that Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders in Albany will soon iron out their differences on this critical issue. The governor has said he will not pass a state budget, due on April 1st, without comprehensive bail reform, so the clock is ticking.

That said, as the finer points get worked out, now is also a good time to recall some very blunt facts about cash bail and how detrimental it is to so many of our communities in New York City. As a report from my office concluded, there are devastating human costs that come when people are locked up on Rikers Island for the simple reason that they are poor.

We estimate that defendants who are incarcerated on a pre-trial basis because they are unable to pay bail lose some $28 million in wages annually across the five boroughs. So going to jail is just the start. People lose jobs and income, they lose contact with families, they lose apartments, they miss school – all because they don’t have the cash to secure their release.

Who are these people? When we take a closer look at the nearly 33,000 people who landed in Rikers in FY 2017 because they could not afford bail: More than 50 percent were Black and one-third were Latinx; over 40 percent were under the age of 30; more than one-third were charged with a misdemeanor; and close to one-fifth were identified as having a mental illness.

But getting locked up is often just the beginning. For those who do try to post bail – often with help from desperate families and friends – many must contend with commercial bail bondsmen, the state-sanctioned profiteers of our criminal justice system.

As our report pointed out, bail bondsmen extract between $16 million and $27 million in non-refundable fees from New York City defendants and their families every year. That’s real money that could be going to help pay the rent, buy school supplies or put food on the table. Instead, it is going directly into the pockets of these middlemen, often from families least able to afford it.

In addition to the moral imperatives of keeping people out of jail, eliminating money bail will also act as a stimulus to local economies, with millions of dollars that previously went to bail bondsmen and the courts staying in the pockets of residents to be spent in their local communities. This will have the greatest impact in neighborhoods struggling the most with economic inequality, which too often are the same neighborhoods most severely hurt by our criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, there is an enormous fiscal cost to the city for incarcerating people. We as a City are right now paying about $100 million a year to detain people pretrial who are unable to pay bail -- $100 million! And a sizable chunk of that -- $10 million -- is associated with those who are incarcerated for a very short period of time, often just a few days, and ultimately post bail.

It’s madness – society is not made safer by locking people up for a few days while they try to make bail. Remember, these are people who haven’t even had their day in court, much less been found guilty of a crime.

But they sit nonetheless on Rikers, where the cost to taxpayers of incarcerating a single individual has now climbed to $300,000 a year. For that amount of money, we could provide full-tuition scholarships to send 44 people to a CUNY four-year college for a full year.

So let’s be clear – we need to get rid of cash bail all together, and now is the time to do it. This is not just about right and wrong, it’s about justice and taking the first, critical steps toward correcting generations of racism and inequality baked into our criminal justice system.

Now is our chance, New York. Let’s get this done.

Stringer is the Comptroller of the City of New York.