Whether it's paying your rent or feeding yourself, life in modern New York is expensive as hell, and that includes dealing with the criminal justice system. In 2013, almost 16,000 New Yorkers were unable to make bail set at $2,000 and less for low-level offenses, landing many of them in the halls of Rikers Island or the city's other detention complexes. According to city council data, over 6,000 people couldn't pay bail ranging from $500 to as low as 20 bucks.
This underlying economic reality of the city's criminal justice system is one of the reasons NYC's jail system is bigger (and more expensive) than those in several states. (Not helping matters is intense regulation of "quality of life" offenses as part of broken windows policing, which effectively targets low-income people of color.)
But tucked away into a $78.5 billion budget passed by New York's City Council on Friday afternoon is a bail fund of $1.4 million, set aside to assist people facing bail under $2,000. The idea, spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, is that the city would save a ton of money (it costs NYC $450 per inmate per day and the average stay is 24 days, according to Mark-Viverito) by bailing out these people instead of putting them up in jail for weeks, months, or even years.
"New York City's broken bail system has failed to uphold equal justice for a generation of young people, subjecting too many New Yorkers to needless incarceration and abuse simply because they could not afford to post a low bail while awaiting trial," Speaker Mark-Viverito said in a statement. "We have heard too many heartbreaking stories of the long-term, debilitating consequences of even a short stay on Rikers Island, and there is growing consensus across the city and the nation that we need comprehensive criminal justice reform—and we need it now."
The model is a citywide replica of an initiative known as the Bronx Freedom Fund, which was started in 2007 to assist those arrested in the outer borough. By paying bail, the Fund's organizers argue that thousands of dollars in taxpayer money is saved in the long run.
"Even a day or two in jail can have an incredibly destructive impact on someone who can't afford bail," Alyssa Work, a project director at the Fund, told me over email. "People lose jobs, housing, and a fair chance to litigate their case. A citywide bail fund will help the thousands of New Yorkers incarcerated before trial because they are too poor to secure their own freedom."
However, the fund, as it stands, does not offer assistance to those with a violent criminal record. That technicality makes little to no sense, Brian Sonenstein, an activist and writer for Prison Protest, argues, because bail is often set only for those with past criminal offenses. In other words: low-level offenders with no criminal records rarely have to pay bail, so what difference will this actually make?
"New York judges can't use risk of flight or harm to others in considering bail, so the vague reassurance that the city will determine who deserves it and who doesn't just strikes me as unjustified and cruel," Sonenstein told me. "If the situation is so bad that the City Council is proposing taxpayers bail people out of its jails, I think it's time for the state to consider revising or abolishing the bail system entirely."
"It's a sad state of affairs that city lawmakers would have to basically institutionalize the work of charitable organizations in order to confront the state's bail crisis," he added.
Still, the fund is the latest in a series of reforms intended to reduce the massive cost of policing in New York City. The Brooklyn District Attorney's office made a recent push to clear some of the million-plus outstanding warrants in town, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has also started a program known as Justice Reboot, which seeks to clean up some of the clutter of the New York City summons system. As of Friday, 42 percent of that backlog has been taken care of, a mayoral spokesperson said. (The budget also includes money for 1,300 new cops, who will be hired in part with money saved by reducing overtime for current officers.)
"The Mayor has been clear about the need for bail reform, and we applaud the Speaker's leadership on this vital issue," Amy Spitalnick, spokeswoman for the mayor on budget issues, said in an email. "It's simply unacceptable that the size of a person's bank account—rather than the risk they pose—determines whether someone is in jail or with their family while they await trial. Key reforms must happen on the State level. We are also evaluating what we can do here to increase supervised release slots citywide, which would be an important step forward in moving beyond money bail and the inequities it often causes."
Kalief Browder, the 22-year-old who recently committed suicide after he was struggling to hack it in the city upon his release from a three-year stint on brutality-ridden Rikers Island without trial, had owed $3,000 bail for allegedly stealing a backpack. He would not have qualified for the fund.
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