New York Announces Bail Reform

On Wednesday, New York City announced it would do away with bail requirements for some suspects awaiting trial. The announcement coincided with a call for non-profits to submit proposals for alternatives to jailing those who cannot afford to pay bail.

What's the plan?

The $18 million plan would mean that those accused of non-violent crimes or low-level offenses will not have to raise cash bail, according to the Associated Press. Beginning next year, instead of facing time in New York's infamous Rikers Island jail -- which has come under high levels of scrutiny following major stories including the suicide of Kalief Browder -- while awaiting trial, low-risk defendants may be assigned supervision options by a judge.

The options may include drug treatment requirements, regular check-ins, reminders to show up to court, etc. The reform is likely to affect around 3,000 defendants charged with non-violent felonies or misdemeanors; these defendants will be able to bypass bail, keep their jobs, and live with their families while awaiting trial.

Why does this matter?

As John Oliver pointed out in June of 2015, the U.S. system of bail is flawed and produces inequality in our criminal justice system. Jails, unlike prisons, are run by local governments; their main purpose is to house criminal defendants awaiting trial. (Jails often also house those who are serving shorter sentences.) There are two major categories of people detained in jails:

  • Accused criminals who are denied bail -- for example, a defendant may be considered a flight risk or too dangerous.
  • Accused criminals who cannot afford to pay bail -- in effect criminalizing poor people by locking them up if they cannot afford to pay bail, yet have not been convicted of a crime.

Currently, the Associated Press reports that 14 percent of defendants who go through the New York City court system are held on bail. This amounts to 45,500 people. Data from the city council estimates that in 2013, 6,327 defendants could not pay bail amounts between $20 and $500.

Kalief Browder, who was accused of stealing a backpack at age 16 -- but never charged, could not afford the $3,000 bail. He was subsequently locked up in Rikers Island for three years, where he was kept in solitary confinement and beaten by both guards and inmates. The charges were eventually dropped. The New Yorker profiled Browder and his time spent in jail. Earlier this year, he tragically committed suicide at age 22. His case has become a rallying call for reform in the system.

What is the effect of this change?

The plan announced today could help thousands avoid jail time -- time that can create significant hardship on a person before ever being found guilty or innocent of a crime -- due to being unable to afford bail.

"I think the basic principle is that Kalief Browder and other cases have begun to signify this [need for reform] in the public eye," Elizabeth Glazer, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator, told the Associated Press. "We want to focus on risk to be the determining factor to decide if someone will be in or out; and it has to be risk, not money."

In a New York City pilot program, 87 percent of the 1,100 people who were released to their families on a supervised release program showed up for their court date. Other states and cities have also implemented tools for judges to assess the risk of defendants and apply appropriate levels of supervision. New Orleans has taken some similar steps and reduced the population of its jail, including opening pretrial service operations, for non-violent offenders.

Along with New York City's plan to offer non-monetary-bail options to defendants, last month, New York City Council members also voted to approve a bail fund to help those facing low-level misdemeanor charges and cannot pay bail afford up to $2,000.