Vice News: NYC to Eliminate Bail for Many Non-Violent Offenders

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to announce an overhaul of the city’s bail system on Wednesday that is designed to keep low-level offenders out of Rikers Island.

The plan, which offers 3,000 offenders supervised release in lieu of bail, will help “reduce both the financial and human costs of needless incarceration,” New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told VICE News. The council is also considering proposals to establish a fund to help indigent offenders pay bail and stay out of jail until their cases are decided.

Rikers is now crowded with thousands of low-level and low-income detainees who simply cannot afford to meet bail. In 8,000 non-felony cases where the bail was set at $1,000 or less, the defendant failed to pay and wound up in Rikers, according to 2013 numbers released by New York’s City Council.

Under the new bail system, judges can ask low-risk defendants to perform daily check-ins, send text-message reminders, or go to therapy instead of paying bail, according to the Associated Press, which was briefed on the details of the proposal before it was released.

The announcement comes after a series of several high-profile scandals at Rikers. In 2014 Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill man, died in an overheated cell after he was unable to come up with $2,500 for bail. In May, a former Rikers inmate, 22-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide at his home. He’d been held at the complex for three years, failing to pay $3,000 in bail. His alleged crime was stealing a backpack, and he was on probation for previous arrests.

In 2014, a mayoral task force recommended serious reforms to the city’s bail system.

Wednesday’s announcement signals a shift in how the city will deal with pre-trial arrangement for minor offenders. “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 AP. “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.”

Currently about 45,000 New Yorkers are held on bail each year, according to the AP, and a small supervised release pilot program does already exist for 1,100 defendants. About 87 percent of participants in the pilot program return to court without posting bail.

The new proposal is a $17.8 million program overall, with $13.8 million coming from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which is being sourced from asset forfeiture funds from sanctions against the French bank BNP Paribas, according to Manhattan DA office spokesman Patrick Muncie. The remainder will come from city funds, he said.

Robin Steinberg at the Bronx Defender’s office told VICE News Wednesday that the program may not entirely solve the issue.

“Eliminating reliance on cash bail is a long overdue positive step, but if the City replaces it with a system of onerous restrictions and mandates, it could expand surveillance over low income communities of color and recreate the problem of extracting punishment before conviction,” she said.

By Avi Asher-Schapiro

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