New Bail Alternative Means Freedom for Thousands

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A housing unit at the Rikers Island jail complex

Thousands of people accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies will stay out of Rikers Island under a $17.8 million pretrial supervision program, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday.

The program comes as local officials try to reduce violence at the Rikers Island jails and while they grapple with concerns the criminal justice system discriminates against low-income minorities.

“There is a very real human cost to how our criminal justice system treats people while they wait for trial,” de Blasio said in a prepared 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. This is unacceptable. If people can be safely supervised in the community, they should be allowed to remain there regardless of their ability to pay.”  

New York helped pioneer alternatives to bail in the 1960s when city judges began widely releasing defendants on their own recognizance — essentially a promise to return to court.  But today about 14 percent, or roughly 45,000 defendants arraigned in a city criminal court, are held on bail, according to city figures.

The new program would allow those who might be considered by judges to be too great a risk to release on their own recognizance to instead get out under the supervision of a nonprofit organization.

The city wants to model the new initiative after pretrial supervision programs the Criminal Justice Agency runs in Manhattan and Queens. The agency typically takes defendants accused of a non-violent felony who are unlikely to be released on their own recognizance but who also aren’t likely to commit another crime. That generally means that people with multiple felonies or numerous misdemeanor arrests would not be eligible.

Liz Glazer, who heads the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said that supervision would vary according to the person and their needs.

“For some people, it’s as simple as a reminder. For others, it’s ensuring that they show up to actually meet with somebody once a week or whatever the interval of time is,” she said. “And for some folks, it’s actually a referral to services of different kinds.”

The Center for Court Innovation runs a similar pilot program for misdemeanor defendants in Brooklyn. That program handles about 220 cases a year. About 85 percent of participants avoided incarceration and only 12 percent were ultimately sentenced to jail, said Adam Mansky, the Center’s operations director.

“If you think about trying to ratchet down the use of incarceration, not only are we getting people out now during this detention period — which amounts for a lot of the use of city jails like Rikers — but also reducing the likelihood that they’re going to get some kind of jail sentence at the end,” Mansky said.

Public defenders say their clients feel more pressure to plead guilty when they’re being held in jail on bail.

Supervised release programs aren’t the only programs being used to keep people out pending trial. The Bronx Defenders launched a bail fund in 2013 that posts the money for people who can’t afford even low bail amounts. Unlike the supervision programs, defendants aren’t required to physically check in with case managers. The fund boasts a 97 percent return rate.

Billy Laurent said the fund posted his $500 bail after he was arrested in 2013 for driving under the influence. He said he wouldn’t have been able to make bail and would have lost his maintenance job if he had been incarcerated.

“I would have lost my job, my car — everything,” Laurent said.

He ultimately made his court dates, pleaded guilty and got six months of probation.

Shrinking the jail population will also help make Rikers Island a more functional, safer place to be. Over the years, violence has soared at the jail system and several inmates have died. 

“At the end of the day a smaller population and a population that stays there for shorter periods of time definitely reduces stress within the institution both for staff and inmates,” said Glazer. “But there are lots of pieces to reducing the jail population and this is just one part of it.”

The city has also increased efforts to reduce the length of time it takes to resolve a case in the court system.  According to the city, in the last two months it's resolved 356 — or a quarter — of the cases in which a defendant has been in jail for over a year while waiting for trial. 

Over the last few years, the effort to shrink jail and prison populations has gained support from both Democrats and Republicans. Heather Mac Donald from the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-thank, said that supervised release is good, but the program should go farther. She said it could be used as a substitute for actual jail or prison sentences for as long as there was meaningful monitoring.

“You have to understand that your behavior is being monitored and that there are consequences for your decisions,” she said. “And those consequences don’t have to be huge, but they have to be certain and they have to be immediate.”