Bail is too high for many caught in New York’s criminal justice system.
The inability of many people to post bail at arraignment prompted Queens City Council Member Rory Lancman to introduce a bill Tuesday that would require the court to more thoroughly consider a defendant’s financial situation when setting bail.
Eighty-five percent of defendants are unable to pay just $500 at arraignment, Lancman told Metro. And after someone is shipped off to Rikers it becomes a "Kafkaesque nightmare of getting bail paid even if there is someone who can," as there are several different locations to go to for the process. "It’s not even 20th century conditions, it’s 19th century.”
Bail is generally based on the judge’s perception of the defendant’s flight risk. "But really it’s also based on the notion that some defendants ought to have skin in the game,” Lancman said.
The measure is part of a greater initiative to make bail-paying easier, such as online payment and ATMs in the courtroom, so that people do not have to languish in jail for days, weeks or even years if they are unable to post it at arraignment.
The law already requires the courts consider a defendant’s financial ability in determining bail. But with concrete information collected by the New York Criminal Justice Agency, which also does the intake to determine flight risk, a lot of incorrect assumptions could be avoided. The bill would adjust the law so that financial information discovered by the NYCJA is presented to the judge, the prosecutor and the defense counsel at every individual arraignment.
“The more insidious reality is that because our criminal justice system is so clogged, and it is so difficult for a defendant to have their day in court, that the process is made to be the punishment, and spending a few days or a few weeks in Rikers is the way the system punishes you when it lacks the machinery to actually punish you after a full and fair trial and your guilt has been determined,” Lancman said.
Inappropriate bail can even lead to tragedy. Kalief Browder was accused of stealing a backpack when he was 16 and because his family was unable to pay the initial $3,000 bail, he ended up in Rikers Island for three years. He spent months in solitary confinement, suffered abuse and was in violent fights. But even after the D.A. decided to drop his case Browder was already deeply damaged from his experiences and committed suicide shortly after his release in 2015.
Despite such examples, there are some who might oppose the measures on the basis of added expense for the collecting of the information. Prosecutors might oppose it on the grounds that it could give them less leverage at arraignment, Lancman said, adding that some from the bail reform movement – who seek to remove bail completely – might say it lacks the “purity” of the effort for bail reform as it would only amend a law.
Efforts to reform the city's bail system have met with some success. Mayor Bill de Blasio reduced the use of bail for lower misdemeanors last year with a $17.8 million bail alternative fund. Also, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito established a fund to help people pay bail, and the state’s top judge Jonathan Lippman imposed policies to minimize the use of bail, The New York Times reported.