Why New York City Is Planning To Help Its Prisoners Pay Bail

June 30th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Among the problems racking New York City's prison system is the affordability of bail assignments, and the issues that arise from arrestees getting priced out of their freedom, stuck in jail, awaiting trial. Once inside, those charged with a crime can face all of the dangers that come with spending time in a place like the city's notoriously violent Riker's Island simply because they could not afford to pay as little as $20 to get out.

Lawmakers recently set out to fix the nightmare for the city's poorer defendants;by allocating funds toward a city-wide bail coffer to help those in need. A bail fund has been in talks for months, and last week, city council members approved a $78.5 billion budget for the 2016 fiscal year that included $1.4 million to help pay for prisoners facing bails of up to $2,000––a move lawmakers said would reduce prisoners' safety risks and save the city millions.

"The NYC bail fund will keep New Yorkers out of Riker's who shouldn't be there, and will save millions of taxpayer dollars at the same time," said council member Rory I. Lancman, who chairs the Courts & Legal Services Committee, in a statement last week. "The fund...will bring New York back to the forefront of bail reform where our city belongs," he said.

The initiative, backed chiefly by city council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, will give the city the ability to post bail for defendants charged with low-level misdemeanors who cannot front the money to be released between the time of their arrest and their court appointment. Leaving defendants behind bars exposes them to the physical and mental risks of incarceration, and imposes avoidable costs for taxpayers, according to Mark-Viverito. City council data estimates that more than 6,300 people could not make bail payments of amounts between $20 and 500 in 2013, and with the average 24-day stay for indignant defendants charged with a nonviolent offense costing around $450 per day, those cases can add up. According to 2010-2011 Independent Budget Office data, pretrial detention for misdemeanants cost NYC about $125 million.

The city-wide bail fund takes hints from a 2007 initiative known as the Bronx Freedom Fund, which VICE notes provides more or less the same service to people arrested in the Bronx with notable success. Critics of taxpayer-funded bailouts for criminals warn that those set free have nothing to lose for absconding or not showing up to a court appearance, but defendants assisted by the Bronx fund in its first year of operation showed up to all of their court dates 97 percent of the time, with 56 percent of their cases eventually getting dismissed, according to an internal report. The fund put up $116,000 for 140 defendants in 2014.

There are limits to how many a city-wide fund would help, such as those with violent criminal records (who are not eligible, but are often more likely to have a bail set in the first place), or those with bails higher than $2,000, like Kalief Browder, the 22-year-old who spent three brutal years awaiting trial in Riker's and recently hanged himself. His bail, for allegedly stealing a backpack, was set at $3,000, which he could not afford.

Still, the fund and the broader bail issue is a step in a larger push to overhaul New York's crowded prison and legal system, standing with other notable initiatives to cut down the more than a million outstanding warrants, and to burnish the city's backlogged summons system, as examples of positive, top-down reformation efforts. A spokesperson for New York City mayor Bill de Blasio told VICE that along with reevaluating bail amounts, his office is looking to solutions that stray from "money bail and the inequities if often causes" in the form of "supervised release slots citywide[.]"

Even with these reforms, however, one lawmaker took issue with what she saw as feeding the problem the city was trying to stymie by hiring more officers. The budget that included the bail fund passed with only one "nay" in the city council on Friday, with Inez Barron (D-Queens) lambasting her fellow council members for ushering through funds for 1,300 additional police officers, which she called a "fatal mistake."

"I believe that the injection of $170 million for police officers is a misdirection of appropriation of significant funds," she said. "The historic racism that is systemic throughout this country and continues to surface in so many situations also exists in the NYPD. This is not a feeling but a fact."