NEW YORK — On a single day last fall, over 200 people accused but not convicted of small-time, misdemeanor crimes sat in New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail because they couldn’t pay bail. Nearly half were behind bars for lack of $2,000 or less, according to city statistics.
Few or none would be there under a newly approved overhaul of the state’s bail system, which will no longer let judges put a price on freedom for most people awaiting trial on misdemeanors, nonviolent felonies and certain robbery and burglary charges.
The state budget that passed this week includes new bail rules that could affect thousands of people statewide. It’s among criminal justice changes that also will require prosecutors and defense lawyers to show each other certain evidence early in a case, altering deadlines seen as some of the most eve-of-trial latest in the nation.
Civil rights groups and defense lawyers see the measures as a turning point in a state where they say a progressive reputation hasn’t matched reality for the accused.
“These reforms help transform New York from a laggard to a leader on justice,” New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said.
But the Democrat-led overhaul has drawn opposition from Republican lawmakers and some law enforcement officials who say it could jeopardize public safety.
“If anyone believes crime doesn’t pay, they should visit New York,” state Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb said in a statement.
People arrested in New York and other states are sometimes held until trial, particularly in major, violent felony cases. But in many cases, defendants are either released outright or offered a chance to get out by putting up bail money as a guarantee they’ll return to court. If they don’t, they forfeit the money.
Critics say bail punishes poor people who are, by law, presumed innocent, and presents a public safety paradox: Some major-crime suspects get out because they can pay high bail, while low-level defendants who can’t pay small sums stay in jail.
Cities such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New York have cut back on cash bail in recent years, as have states including New Jersey and New Mexico. Some places have eliminated it altogether: California last year became the first state to do so, deciding to free many suspects while barring release altogether in major violent felony cases. The law is now on hold until a 2020 referendum.
Washington D.C. eliminated cash bail back in the 1990s.
New York’s reckoning over bail has been whetted by distressing cases.
A former U.S. Marine and homeless Rikers inmate, Jerome Murdough, sweltered to death in 2014 in a 100-degree cell while being held on $2,500 bail in a trespassing case. Kalief Browder, who was a teenager at the time, spent three years at Rikers on $3,000 bail before the charge against him — stealing a backpack — was dropped in 2013.
Browder’s suicide two years later helped prompt officials to cut down on using money bail in the city. Defendants were released without it in more than three-quarters of cases citywide last year, according to the New York City Criminal Justice Agency . The city-linked nonprofit says 86% of people freed without bail made all their court dates in 2017, the last year available.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has estimated the new state law will keep about 90% of defendants out of jail at least until their case gets resolved.
Among other things, it requires police to release people with court appearance tickets in most misdemeanor and some felony cases, rather than hold them until they go before a judge.
State data show two-thirds of the 408,000 people arrested last year were accused of misdemeanors.
Some advocates for arrestees say the state needs to go further and eliminate money bail altogether.
“Money is not what leads to people coming back to court,” says Paul Goldberg, who runs the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund.
The charity pays modest bail, averaging $1,100, for 1,200 or more New York City misdemeanor defendants each year, and offers them reminders and transportation help to get them to court appearances. Ninety-five percent make every date, Goldberg said.
But some prosecutors, judges and lawmakers say bail remains a needed tool in some cases and the new law doesn’t do enough to protect the public.
“We believe this is a dangerous mistake,” six New York City and suburban district attorneys, all Democrats, wrote in an op-ed in the Daily News last week. They suggested the law might allow detention of someone who amassed weapons but didn’t have a known, specific target.
Prosecutors also note that some suspects in major crimes are initially arrested in minor ones, and bail can help ensure they stick around while authorities build a case.
As other states begin to assess the outcomes of reducing the use of money bail, the New Jersey judiciary this week released a largely upbeat report . It noted declining a jail population with little change in reoffense or court appearance rates.
But while there has been progress on the state’s goal of shrinking racial disparities in jail, black men are still overrepresented, the report said.