By Bill Parry
State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) will introduce legislation that would reform the pre-trial detention system in New York State by eliminating bail. The bill would remove cash bail or any form of monetary bail bond as an option for a judge to impose on a defendant pending trial.
Instead, defendants would face three proposed alternatives to bail: conditional release with pre-trial monitoring, release on the defendant’s own recognizance or remand to a correctional facility.
“The bail system was never intended to lock up people who could not afford it before they even have a trial,” Gianaris said. “The current system has been bastardized to become a means of imprisoning people without due process.”
The current bail system has come under scrutiny since Kalief Browder’s suicide in June. The 22-year-old had spent three years on Rikers Island without a trial or conviction after his family couldn’t raise the $3,000 bail following his arrest at the age of 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack.
During his time on Rikers, Browder was beaten by guards and fellow inmates and subjected to more than 400 days in solitary confinement. The charges were eventually dismissed, but Browder’s experience led him to take his own life.
Gianaris says recent data indicates that the payment of bail does not result in increased rates of appearance for trial, calling into question the effectiveness of cash bail for this purpose. Gianaris developed his proposal in coordination with New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman who said, “bail serves no other purpose other than to incarcerate people who are too poor to pay it.”
The long-term damage that bail inflicts on vulnerable defendants extends beyond incarceration. Thousands of people are jailed each year because they cannot afford bail, which puts them at risk of losing their jobs or custody of their children as well as jeopardizing housing.
Faced with the prospect of going to jail for want of bail, many defendants face pressure to accept unfair plea deals instead.
It is estimated that the cost of pre-trial detention in New York exceeds $1 billion annually, which means the enactment of Gianaris’ proposal would result in significant taxpayer savings.
Meanwhile, the state’s chief judge isn’t waiting for the lawmakers to act. Judge Jonathan Lippman announced a series of administrative changes that would reduce the number of people who are incarcerated because they can’t make bail.
He would urge judges to set bail low enough so that defendants could await trial at home or use alternatives to cash bail, like electronic monitoring.
“Defendants who are unable to post bail serve a sentence before their cases are ever resolved,” he said. “They do so regardless of innocence or guilt, and the harm that this injustice causes is intolerable.”
Browder was one of 50,000 people jailed each year in New York City because they can’t secure a bail bond, according to the New York Times,.four out of ten people on Rikers Island are there because they cannot afford bail..
“In the Kalief Browder case, there were numerous adjournments, one after another,” Lippman said. “It was not until three years into the case that a judge, after pressing the prosecutor and proactively seeking to resolve the case, learned that the prosecution had lost contact with its key witness.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr