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New York City Is Reforming Bail to Keep More People Away From the Hellhole That Is Rikers Island

The idea is to keep track of low-risk defendants via text messages or in-person meetings so they can hold onto their jobs and steer clear of the violence at the city's notorious jail complex.
July 8, 2015, 4:30pm
Rikers Island. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday morning, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's office unveiled a $17.8 million plan to keep some low-level offenders out of jail as they await trial. The money will allow 3,000 inmates to hold onto their jobs and spend time with their families rather than rot in a cell.

The supervised release program is an expansion of successful pilot programs that have been running in Queens and Manhattan since 2009 and 2013, respectively.

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"There is a very real human cost to how our criminal justice system treats people while they wait for trial," Mayor de Blasio said in the statement. "Money bail is a problem because—as the system currently operates in New York—some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose."

The city is now accepting bids from non-profits that want to run the programs, and while the logistics haven't been worked just yet, the idea is to keep track of low-risk defendants via text messages or in-person meetings.

As it stands, about 45,500 people go through the NYC bail system each year, according to statistics provided by the mayor's office. As the Associated Press reported, about 10 percent of courts nationwide have a system similar to the one America's largest city is finally gearing up to implement.

The reforms come on the heels of two high-profile deaths on Rikers Island—the hellish jail complex north of Queens that houses most of the city's prisoners. Last year, a mentally ill homeless man named Jerome Murdough baked to death in his cell. He was in jail for sleeping on the roof of a Harlem housing project, and naturally, couldn't afford his $2,500 bail.

Public outcry over the broken system got even louder when the New Yorker's Jennifer Gonnerman told the story of Kalief Browder—the Bronx kid who was on Rikers for a whopping three years, without trial, on charges that he stole a backpack. Although Browder was eventually released, embraced by celebrities, and name-dropped by Mayor de Blasio as a symbol of everything wrong with criminal justice in the city, the story had a gut-wrenching ending: Browder ended his life early last month, at the age of 22.

Of course, there's still more work to be done to make the bail system fair. Three thousand defendants is just a small dent in 45,500. And as the AP reported, New York State law requires that judges take flight risk into account when determining whether or not to impose bail.

But even if it doesn't catch New York up with the rest of America—much less more progressive criminal justice systems around the world—the city's new bail initiative should keep more citizens safe from the notorious violence on Rikers Island.

"My Office has long supported a change to the state's antiquated law that only permits us to take an individual's risk of flight into account when setting bail," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement."Today, I'm calling on Albany to amend that law to enable prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys to also evaluate dangerousness and risk of re-offending when making bail determinations, as is the practice in nearly every other state in this country

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