Many people are held in New York City jails for weeks or months before trial who are never ultimately convicted of a crime.
From 2006 through 2010, more than 10,000 people accused of a felony in New York City sat in jail before the trial started, only to be acquitted or have the case dismissed, according to figures from the New York City Criminal Justice agency, a nonprofit that does pretrial screening for the courts. The median detention for those who are never convicted ranged from two weeks to about a month.
Mary Phillips, the agency’s deputy director of research, analyzed the data for WNYC. She found that of the 15,000 felony cases that ended without a conviction in 2010, about 10 percent of defendants were in jail the entire pretrial period.
Those numbers alone aren’t necessarily a surprise, said Michael Jacobson, director of the City University of New York’s Institute on State and Local Governance.
“Every criminal justice system is going to arrest people that ultimately don’t get convicted for a whole bunch of reasons: Because they didn’t do it, because they were the wrong person to arrest in the first place, because they arrested them and the evidence just fell short of conviction. There’s a whole bunch of sort of legitimate reasons,” Jacobson said.
The problem is that the city court system has been plagued by delays in recent years, he said.
“You want to ensure that for those who stay in Rikers Island, who are separated from their families, who are deprived of their liberty, that that period lasts as short as possible so that they get due process, that justice can be done, but it’s not justice denied or delayed,” Jacobson said.
People accused of a felony in New York City spent an average of 95 days behind bars last year waiting for trial. That’s a 25 percent increase from a decade earlier, despite a drop in the number of new felony cases entering the system, according to a report Jacobson co-authored that in part urged the city’s next mayor to help make the courts more efficient.
About 600 people charged with a felony in 2010 spent at least two months behind bars before being acquitted or having their case dismissed, according to the Criminal Justice Agency analysis. Nearly 100 defendants spent more than a year in jail but were never convicted of a crime.
It’s not just an issue of justice. Extra jail time costs money. Current Independent Budget Office figures show the annual cost per jail inmate is $170,000.
“No policy maker, if you said to them, ‘You know, we have $150 million to spend on public safety in New York City, do you think we should spend it on keeping people who are pretrial detainees another 18 days in jail?’ No one would say, ‘Yeah that’s a good idea,’” Jacobson said.
If someone is guilty they should be convicted quickly and go to prison, he added. If not they need to go home. The money spent on that jail time could go to hiring more cops or to supporting public safety programs, he said.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, the man who oversees the state court system, has had some success lowering the backlog of cases in New York City. But still, as of mid-June, 55 percent of felony cases citywide were more than 180 days old.
There are currently about 1,500 people who have been in a city jail for more than a year waiting for trial, according to city data.