Correction: An earlier version of this post placed the responsibility for changing bail laws at the feet of the New York City Council. In fact, bail laws are set by the State of New York, and would have to be changed by state legislators. I sincerely regret this error and have amended the post accordingly.
At the same time, I would like to reaffirm my central point that a bail fund (while well intentioned) is not bail reform. It may provide some relief to a subset of prisoners, but the proposal does not actually change the situation facing the vast majority of prisoners in the city’s jails. Kalief Browder, the young black prisoner who recently committed suicide after spending 3 years in pretrial confinement on Rikers unable to pay a $3,000, would likely not have been helped by this plan. Bail will likely continue to be a major factor in the prolonged pretrial detention of New Yorkers until the state abolishes the system entirely.
The NYC Council unveiled a proposal this week to create a $1.4 million fund to pay bail for inmates who cannot afford to do so on their own. An estimated 85% of Rikers Island inmates are being held as pre-trial detainees; their inability to afford bail is the reason why some inmates get caught up on the island for years without ever being convicted of a crime.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan, Bronx), who has been a vocal proponent of reforming the city’s criminal justice system, told reporters the fund would “cover bails set at $2,000 or less for low-level misdemeanors [and] will come from City Council coffers. It is meant to help reduce the detainee population on Rikers Island.” Mayor Bill De Blasio, who was alongside Mark-Viverito at the announcement, said, “There will be a screening process to ensure a defendant does not have a history of violent offenses.”
While this might seem like a good idea, it does not actually challenge the money bail system that fills Rikers and other city jails with predominantly poor, black people. The council, which must rely on state lawmakers to actually reform or abolish the bail system, will in a sense institutionalize the charitable work of nonprofits on the outside. This is truly a sad state of affairs that highlights the complexity and depth of the city’s criminal justice crisis.
The city is also creating an opening for inmates with “violent records” to be unfairly barred from the bail fund. First of all, if you are arrested and perceived to be at risk of flight or harm to others, you are typically held without bail. New York State prohibits judges from considering these dangers when imposing bail, but it can be hard to avoid. This could potentially be a problem because of the different way sin which people can acquire “violent records.” Victims of domestic violence sometimes find themselves with violent records after defending themselves from their abusers. Mentally ill inmates — of which there are many on Rikers Island — can sometimes have violent records as well stemming from a lack or mismanagement of their healthcare. It does a lot more to save face for politicians wanting to avoid being perceived as too-soft on crime than it does promote the public safety.
Like so many other Rikers Island reforms, the bail fund is does little more than accommodate the shameful status quo.
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