New York City To Stop Jailing Some Nonviolent Offenders For Being Poor



Unable to pay $3,000 in bail, Kalief Browder spent three excruciating years in Rikers awaiting trial for a crime he didn’t commit — ultimately leading to the 22-year-old’s suicide in June. But starting next year, non-violent suspects in New York City may not have to pay bail at all, New York City officials announced Wednesday. Instead, they’ll be diverted to rehabilitative services and supervisory alternatives.

According to the Human Rights Watch, roughly 90 percent of people behind bars awaiting trial are black or Latino. Judges will soon have the option of requiring daily check-ins, text-message reminders and required drug or behavioral therapy in lieu of bail for thousands of offenders.

The change follows mounting pressure to eliminate a bail system that disproportionately impacts low-income people of color who haven’t even been found guilty of a criminal offense — such as Browder. The supervision options are viable alternatives because the vast majority of defendants released under supervision — 87 percent — appear in court when required. Among those who missed their court date, less than 10 percent didn’t show up within 30 days.

Close to 15 percent of defendants — 45,500 — are held on bail in New York City annually. Those who are disproportionately imprisoned because of racially disparate arrest rates will be able to avoid jail time altogether. Today, the average bail amount is $2000 but 44 percent of defendants can’t even pay $500. More than one-third of Rikers inmates have not been convicted. Many of them are there simply because they cannot afford to get out.

And under the new system defendants in need of rehabilitative services will also have a chance to get that assistance, which will reduce the likelihood of committing crimes and cut jail costs.

Bail is under more scrutiny in the wake of the protests over Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, where demonstrators faced exorbitant fees to get out of jail. A Baltimore teen who turned himself in to the authorities had to pay $500,000 for eight misdemeanor charges — $150,000 to $250,000 more than the officers charged for Freddie Gray’s death. He was locked up for 10 days because his family couldn’t pay the large sum. But the practice of charging massive sums for arrestees is common across the country. One Mississippi man, charged but not convicted of attempted robbery, spent 10 months in jail because he couldn’t pay $30,000. Another spent 9 months behind bars because he couldn’t afford to pay his bail, which was set at $100,000.

“Nowhere is our country’s desensitization to caging human beings more stark than in the criminal legal system’s rampant and illegal practice of jailing the poor prior to any conviction, solely because of their poverty,” attorney Alec Karakatsanis of Equal Justice Under Law, a legal nonprofit that has successfully challenged local bail systems, told ThinkProgress.

The bail system was first conceived as a way to keep people from avoiding court. However, steeper amounts and the frequency with which judges demand bail indicates the system has become a profitable venture. The push to eliminate the system currently extends far beyond New York City. Small towns in Missouri and Alabama have recently been forced to stop jailing people who can’t afford bail.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress 


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