City to End Cash Bail for More Than 3,000 Accused New Yorkers

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

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced today a $17.8 million plan to allow 3,000 New Yorkers accused of crimes to await trial under supervision at home—instead of asking them to pay cash bail and sit in Rikers Island if they can’t afford it.

“There is a very real human cost to how our criminal justice system treats people while they wait for trial,” Mr. de Blasio said. “Money bail is a problem because—as the system currently operates in New York—some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose. This is unacceptable. If people can be safely supervised in the community, they should be allowed to remain there regardless of their ability to pay.”

The announcement, first reported this morning by the Associated Press, comes weeks after the suicide of Kalief Browder, who as a teenage spent three years in Rikers Island all because he could not afford his $3,000 bail on charges of stealing a backpack. Those charges were eventually dropped—but not before Browder was subjected to more than a year of solitary confinement and a brutal beating caught on camera.

Browder’s death shone new light on efforts to reform the bail system in New York, which is controlled by state law and which Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman recently told the Observer is “totally ass-backwards in every respect.”

Last month, after Browder’s death, city Criminal Justice Coordinator Elizabeth Glazer told the Observer the city was looking to triple the size of its supervised release program—getting them to around 3,000 people, the figure announced today.

Bail is meant not to punish but, under New York law, only to ensure a defendant will return to court to face charges. The law doesn’t allow judges to consider whether someone is dangerous, Judge Lippman has noted, while on the other end of the spectrum, it means a poor person accused of the same crime as a wealthier person is likely to sit in jail because he cannot afford even modest bail, while the wealthier person awaits trial for the same charges at home. And bail bonds companies are less likely to help defendants with lower bails as there is less money it for them.

The supervised release program is one way for the city to address issues surrounding bail without a change in state law—which Judge Lippman has been calling for since 2013 but is unlikely to come any time soon in a gridlocked and dysfunctional State Legislature.

The option will be available to defendants in every borough, with the city putting out a request for proposals today seeking bids from non-profit organizations to administer supervised releases. The providers will use a “validated risk assessment tool,” the city said, to determine which candidates might be eligible and what levels of supervision are required. The target will be defendants who are not a public safety risk but were likely to face some level of bail.

The supervision could be as simple as regular check-ins by text message, or could include in-person visits and connections with social services to address a defendant’s particular issues. Pilot programs are already underway in Queens and Manhattan, serving about 1,100, and the new funding will expand that figure to 3,400 citywide.

The release program will be funded by $4 million from the city and $13.8 million from asset forfeiture money pledged by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.

The news also comes just after the City Council funded its own bail fund, aimed at paying the bail of defendants with low-level charges and bail of less than $2,000. The supervised release program will likely lower the number of people fitting that description, but in a statement Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said she expected the efforts to work together.

“The expansion of supervised release programs should work hand in hand with the Council’s Citywide bail fund to significantly reduce both the financial and human costs of needless incarceration,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said.

The mayor’s office showcased praise for the plan from criminal justice reform advocates, the police commissioner, and Judge Lippman—who said the court system would “cooperate fully” with the program and continue its push to change state laws.

“Providing judges with more accurate and complete information about the defendants who come before them and instituting effective alternatives such as supervised release are critical steps in reducing overreliance on bail,” he said in a statement.

Herb Sturz, senior adviser at the Open Society Institute and founding director of the Vera Institute of Justice—which first sought to overhaul bail in New York City fifty years ago with the introduction of releasing people of their own recognizance—was among those quoted in City Hall’s announcement.

“Today’s action by the Mayor will bring freedom to persons charged but not convicted; it will add strength to the presumption of innocence,” he said in a statement. “Increased supervised release, generally performed by vetted community based agencies, can as well strengthen ties between the community and the criminal justice system. Today’s program will help keep families together, help accused persons retain jobs, and provide easier access to counsel.” City to End Cash Bail for More Than 3,000 Accused New Yorkers