Melissa Mark-Viverito: New York City Desperately Needs a Bail Fund

A Department of Correction bus outside Rikers island (Photo by Emily Assiran/New York Observer)

A Department of Correction bus outside Rikers island (Photo: Emily Assiran/New York Observer)

Last summer, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara lifted the curtain on what many knew but few spoke of in his 70-page report, which revealed in graphic detail the continual assaults, harassment and physical and emotional trauma that Rikers Island inmates face. This “culture of violence” and widespread abuse is all the more disturbing because too many New Yorkers incarcerated in this dangerous environment are only there because they could not afford relatively low bail.

The history of bail gives us some insight into the problem. In the 1970s, the state Legislature rewrote the bail statutes to increase the numbers of defendants released pre-trial. The laws were designed solely to ensure a defendant’s appearance in court, not to punish those who are innocent until proven guilty. Yet today, the reality is just the opposite: 87 percent of those for whom bail is set spend some time on Riker’s Island pre-trial. And that’s just for misdemeanor cases. Also in the 1970s, the state created nine forms of bail and encouraged judges to set the least restrictive form of bail possible. Yet today, judges almost universally use bail bonds and cash bail, typically the most restrictive forms.

The U.S. attorney’s report forces us to question the lingering social and psychological impacts of even a short stay on Rikers. For many, the nightmare does not end upon release; studies show that incarceration is often the catalyst for a lifetime of instability and recidivism due to lost jobs, unstable housing and social stigma. We have an obligation to keep our city safe and maintain order; however, a long history of systemic social inequality has resulted in jails filled with predominantly young men of color, who are often incarcerated for low-level offenses such as jumping a turnstile without ever having been found guilty of a crime.

We have a responsibility to ensure that the next generation of young people is not lost to a broken system.

And we all pay the price: taxpayers spend over $100,000 a year to maintain just one individual on Rikers Island. In 2013, 16,663 defendants awaited trial at Rikers Island for low-level offenses because they could not post bail. In fact, even when the bail is set as low as $500, only 16 percent can post it immediately—costing the city millions of dollars to unnecessarily house individuals who could and should be out of jail.

We have a responsibility to ensure that the next generation of young people is not lost to a broken system.

That is why the New York City Council is taking a bold approach to criminal justice reform—with the proposal for a citywide bail fund.

This fund, authorized by state law, has already proven to be effective in the city: more than 90 percent of defendants show up for court dates. And the fund will only be available to people who are accused of committing low-level offenses. Minimizing the time these individuals spend in jail allows them to keep their jobs and housing, and will save the city millions in incarceration costs.

This is not to say there should not be consequences for breaking the law. If a defendant bailed out by this fund is ultimately convicted they will be sentenced accordingly, and if they miss an appearance a warrant will be issued, just like any defendant who can afford bail. The fund simply puts the rich and poor on the same playing field. And it reduces the number of lives that would be forever marked by a needless stay in jail.

In conjunction with the increased use of summonses and desk appearance tickets for minor offenses, as well as the expansion of supervised release programs, this citywide bail fund can help minimize the unnecessary and negative interactions with the criminal justice system that so often contribute to corrosive relations between police and communities of color.

Simply put, it is time to turn the page and end this era of unnecessary and harmful incarceration of young New Yorkers for low-level offenses. Jumping a turnstile at 16 should not serve as a life sentence. New York City has the power to change this, and we must act swiftly.

Melissa Mark-Viverito is speaker of the City Council.

Melissa Mark-Viverito: New York City Desperately Needs a Bail Fund