The New York Civil Liberties Union has released a report it hopes will inform the state-level discussion on bail reform. The NYCLU claims its report shares unknown information on the use of bail. But, one Hudson Valley district attorney does see a need for bail reform and takes issue with some of the proposals being discussed.
The NYCLU report looks at five years of bail records in eight New York state counties, with data on bail amounts, length of stay and charges for pre-trial detainees. The report shows that more than 90,000 New Yorkers spent a day or more in custody on bail, and the majority were held on relatively low bail amounts and charged with minor offenses. And some 45,000 spent at least one week in custody. Shannon Wong is director of the NYCLYU’s Lower Hudson Valley Chapter.
“Tens of thousands of people in New York state are locked up regularly simply because they can’t afford bail. And this is really a statewide issue that needs a comprehensive solution from Albany,” Wong says. “In too many cases, people who are arrested are faced with two options — pay up or stay in jail, which means that, in these cases, freedom is only permitted to those who can afford to pay their bail, and innocence should not be dependent on how much money you have in the bank.”
The report is entitled, “Presumed Innocent for a Price: The Impact of Cash Bail Across Eight New York Counties.” Four of the counties highlighted are in the Hudson Valley, including Dutchess, where a case earlier this year focused on the issue. The NYCLU filed suit against the Dutchess County Sheriff, alleging a resident was put behind bars unfairly because he could not afford the cash bail. A judge ruled in favor of the resident, which prompted Governor Andrew Cuomo to issue a statement, commending the ruling and pointing to what the Democrat calls the centerpiece of his criminal justice reform package — a plan to eliminate monetary bail all together for those facing misdemeanor or nonviolent felony charges. Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady, a Republican, says bail reform warrants discussion.
“So certainly we hope that the net result of all this dialogue will be a bail system that everybody can understand and be fair,” Grady says.
In the Dutchess case, Grady says the man, who spent three months in jail in lieu of $5,000 bail before pleading guilty, had on his record failure to appear in court. Grady explains his concerns about aspects of cash bail reform.
“I have serious reservations about an across-the-board mandate that would require that all offenders who are charged with misdemeanor offenses not have bail set in their case and simply be released,” says Grady. “There are so many problems that are associated with a particular offender and his background that it would be a disservice to the community to do that. And by that I mean not only might the offender have a terrible prior record or a terrible prior record with regard to his failure to appear in court, but also what we find is the overwhelming majority of the offenders, especially at the misdemeanor level, who go to jail and are unable to make bail are, in fact, either, either have serious mental health issues or drug dependency issues, or a combination of both.”
Wong says the NYCLU chose to profile the eight counties to prove the issue is statewide. The report also looks at Orange, Ulster and Westchester, along with Albany, Monroe, Niagara and Schenectady Counties. And she says the NYCLU has a number of recommendations but considers the following the highest priority.
“We would like people who are charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies to be released without bail,” says Wong. “And then we would want judges to consider alternative forms of bail that are not cash bail, and to put on the record, articulate on the record the basis for their jail decision.”
Grady notes that Dutchess has an “alternatives to incarceration program”, which, at any given time, has 500 offenders participating who could not afford their bail. Wong says NYCLU and other advocacy groups are holding a town hall in Poughkeepsie Saturday at the Family Partnership Center.
“From 11-1 we’re actually going to hosting a #FREEnewyork town hall where we will be talking about bail, speedy trial and discovery,” says Wong.
Wong says there is collateral consequences of being incarcerated pre-trial and unable to pay bail.
“You lose your job. You miss your rent payment. You have to borrow money from family and friends. You may incur debt if you had to borrow money to pay your bail,” Wong says. “If you have a custody case, you could lose your children, right?” Wong says.
Meantime, the state Assembly’s budget proposal would eliminate cash bail in most instances for persons charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies and require courts to impose the least restrictive alternative that would reasonably assure the defendant’s return to court.