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Judge wants to overhaul NY’s bail system

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NEW YORK (PIX11) — The scales of justice are meant to be balanced. But when it comes to the bail system in New York State, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman that’s far from the case.

“I believe it can be summed up in two words: unsafe, unfair,” said Lippman.

Right now, judges are not allowed to consider public safety when granting or denying bail. So thousands of misdemeanor defendants are detained while their cases are pending, simply because they cannot afford to post bail.

Meanwhile violent offenders with money can easily find their way back on the street.

“They could have a huge bail set, and the bail bondsman will want to help them, they’ll be out on the street when there really are questions whether they should be,” said Lippman. “And the poor person, who doesn’t have a dime in their pocket but isn’t a violent criminal, is not going to hurt anybody, they stay in prison at the public expense.”

An expense that adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for each individual, even if they don’t pose a threat to society.

It’s a system Christopher Gaskin says he knows all too well.

In the past, Gaskin has waited at Riker’s Island for 8-months while waiting for his trial.

“I couldn’t finish school,” said Gaskin. “At that time I created a big wall between me and my family. And it was just a part of my life that I had to live with.”

Lippman says in many cases, low-income defendants agree to a plea deal simply to get out because they feel there are no other options.

“It really pushes people toward pleading guilty when they may be innocent.”

But one program at Brooklyn Criminal Court is trying to change the status quo by offering low-level defendants the opportunity to skip bail through a supervised release program.

“The goal of the program is to provide rigorous supervision to defendants coming through the court system on misdemeanor charges where low-level bail is set,” said Jessica Kay with Brooklyn Justice Initiatives.

The supervised release program, which has been around for about a year, is the first of its kind in the state. So far they’ve helped more than 200 defendants who would have otherwise ended up at Rikers Island. Defendants like Christopher Gaskin.

“There’s situations like that where it would really help a guy,” said Gaskin. “Because this way he can go out and work, pay his bills, an all that other stuff. But in there, he just loses everything. And a lot of people they lose their families while they’re in too. That’s the worst part.”

Brooklyn Justice Initiatives has rigorous vetting process to identify the defendants they help. BJI works with defense attorneys, looks at criminal history, ties to the community, and even interviews close contacts.

If the court agrees to the release, the defendants receive rigorous supervision to ensure they return to court – the intended purpose of bail for a significantly lower cost to taxpayers.

“And it has a better outcome for the individual, for the court system, and for public safety,” said Kay.

While Lippman says supervised release programs are a good start, he says New York’s bail system still needs an overhaul. So he’s calling on Albany.

The judge presented a bill he hopes will be brought to the state floor next month. Critics say the stance is soft on crime. Lippman says it’s not soft or strong, but smart.

“Everybody gets their day in court. And today, with our bail system and pre-trial justice the way it exists today, that’s really questionable. And that’s a sad commentary.”

So he hopes legislators will help bring a little more balance back to the scale.