New York City ends misdemeanor bail, signaling reform trend
Friday, January 12, 2018
As jail populations suffer severe overcrowding, more cities and states are pursuing bail reform measures to address harmful jail conditions. Always a policy trendsetter, New York City has launched a notable large-scale bail reform initiative in the context of other statewide criminal justice challenges.
Amid many jail and prison reform issues on the table across the country, bail reform is being pursued as a high priority. Other cities and states are following New York City's path by considering bail reform legislation in the 2018 session; for example, last year New Jersey instituted similar reforms.
When someone is arrested and charged with a crime, they can be held without bail, released on their own recognizance, deemed eligible for pretrial diversion or charged a bail fee related to their release pending a trial.
Frequently, arrestees turn to loved ones or bail bond companies to help pay the fee, but the poor have difficulty raising the money. This inability to pay results in pretrial jail time that is said to wreak havoc on their work and family life.
Furthermore, it is routinely pointed out that pretrial detention leads to more plea deals, simply because people run out of patience and want to move past jail time at any cost. Plea deals offer less time.
When too many people are unable to post bail, jail overcrowding occurs. People can sit in jail for weeks or even months awaiting a trial and resolution through indictment or release.
In New York City, the two biggest Manhattan- and Brooklyn-based district attorneys have recently announced they will no longer be seeking a bail fee for most nonfelony cases. Instead, people charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent violations will be processed and released on their own recognizance pending trial.
While this may not seem like a large development, this move is expected to save the city millions of dollars. It will save arrestees hundreds of thousands of days of jail time, as well.
This move also rides on the coat tails of larger statewide and national legislative initiatives to eliminate cash bail. Chicago, Houston, New Jersey and Alaska have already instituted such reforms. New York state is in the throes of a larger scale criminal justice reform efforts that includes bail reform.
Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called on the Legislature to pass a bill that eradicates bail fees for nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors. Cuomo describes cash bail as producing a "two-tiered system" that discriminates against those who cannot pay.
A similar effort to revamp a state bail law is expected to be debated by the California Legislature this year. And, The New York Times recently reported that Atlanta is considering bail reform, with the Georgia legislature also engaging in related reforms this upcoming session.
Just as New York City district attorneys have ceased misdemeanor bail, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has filed a timely lawsuit against the Dutchess County Sheriff on behalf of a man who could not pay his $5,000 cash bail fee he received due to a misdemeanor shoplifting arrest. The man spent three months in jail.
It is no coincidence that the same day this lawsuit was filed, Cuomo applauded the district attorneys' decision to eliminate misdemeanor cash bail fees. The NYCLU suit will be heard Jan. 19, signaling further efforts at bail reform throughout New York state.
Regardless of where you stand on issues of pretrial detention, cash bail and general jail and prison reform measures, it cannot be denied that any successfully enacted New York reforms will cause ripple effects throughout a nation hotly debating a wide number of criminal justice issues.
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