In his annual State of the Judiciary speech, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman was very critical of New York’s bail system and called for significant changes. He said, much in agreement with reforms happening across the country, that the system is biased against the poor and simultaneously often fails to keep the general public safe.
According to the NY Times, one study found that 19,137 non-felony defendants were arrested in the city and given a $1,000 bond or less. Unable to meet this bond, 87% were held in jail until trial or until the charges were disposed. The average stay for these low-level offenses was 15.7 days.
This study revealed that while for many people $1,000 would be a low, manageable amount to come up with—for the vast majority of low-level offenders, the amount is way too much. And, it’s important to remember, these offenses are largely nonviolent with no public-safety concerns. This, Lippman said, is unfair and “strips our justice system of its credibility.”
“The bail system in New York is frankly an embarrassment,” said Steven Banks for the Legal Aid Society. “It’s essentially sentence first, disposition second.”
Thousands of men and women are given unattainable bails on charges that are minor or wouldn’t even warrant a lengthy jail sentence after conviction.
One woman, profiled in the NY Times report, couldn’t make her $1,000 bail after a cop arrested her when he said she threw a crack pipe. She was held for 12 days, eight of which were served on Riker’s island. (Again, she was alleged to have thrown a crack pipe.) After those 12 days, her bail was reduced to $250 and then the charges were eventually dropped. Why? There was no crack residue on the pipe. No cocaine, no offense. Essentially, she served 12 days for committing no offense. And even if she had been in possession of drug paraphernalia, was 12 days appropriate? Hardly.
Compounding the crooked bail system is the fact that bail bondsmen aren’t usually willing to work for low bonds. They make a percentage of the total bond amount, so low bonds don’t make business sense for them. Someone accused of an offense serious enough to warrant a $25,000, however, could be loaned the money and out of jail the next day.
Judge Lippman, in addition to calling for reform on the bail system, said supervised released programs could help, by monitoring those who are awaiting trial without costing an arm and a leg to house them. This method would also mean the defendants keep their jobs, another way the state could save money.
“You do the math,” Lippman said. “There is enormous potential savings if we can figure out how to safely and responsibly keep nonviolent defendants in the community while their cases are pending.” The ACLU and other states like California are already investigation real bail reforms and their cost savings.
Hopefully, this judge’s sound recommendations will be well-received by New York lawmakers.