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Jail for the poor; rich find way out

While Dominique Strauss-Kahn was free to leave on house arrest, thousands sit in city jails awaiting trial.

Of the 13,000 or so people housed in New York City’s jails on a given day, roughly 10,000 aren’t serving a sentence. They haven’t been convicted of anything; they’re simply awaiting trial.

And most of them are awaiting trial behind bars because they can’t afford not to be: They’re there because they can’t pay bail.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund who is accused of sexual assault, is not among them. He was granted release late last week after posting $1 million in cash.

For Strauss-Kahn, bail was an inconvenience. For low-income defendants, it’s real trouble.

The inability to afford bail means an arrest — even a mistaken one — can have a damaging impact on a person’s life. Work and school are missed, benefits appointments go unattended and child care becomes an issue.

In 2009 (the last year for which the New York City Criminal Justice Agency published data), some 19,000 people arrested never made bail.

Bail is a problematic solution, say some.

“People should not have to endure jail simply because they are too poor to buy their way out,” Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.

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