The New York City criminal justice system's reliance on financial bail has resulted in a system that is unfair to low-income defendants and costly to taxpayers, a new report finds.
The report, "The Price of Freedom: Bail and Pretrial Detention of Low Income Nonfelony Defendants in New York City," by Human Rights Watch, echoes the findings of a 2007 City Limits investigation into the city's bail system.
"Confining people in jail simply because they are too poor to post bail when charged with a low level offense is a serious inequity in the city's criminal justice system," the report finds. "Poverty should not be an impediment to pretrial freedom."
Bail is imposed at arraignment by criminal court judges to encourage defendants to make their next court date. Not all defendants are given bail—some are released on their own recognizance, and others who are deemed dangerous or a serious flight risk are remanded to jail to await trial. A defendant on whom bail is set can pay the bail in cash or get a bail bond agent to put up the bail money for him. But defendants who cannot afford the bail or get a bond must wait behind bars until their case is disposed.
Given the low-level misdemeanor nature of most arrests in the city, this leaves defendants who cannot afford bail facing the prospect of doing more time awaiting trial than they would if they pleaded guilty and were sentenced.
As City Limits found three years ago, HRW determined that in most arrests where bail was set in New York City, the bail was less than $1,000. "Nevertheless, despite the relatively low bail amount, the overwhelming preponderance of defendants required to post that bail amount were jailed because they could not do so," the report found.
The report also found that:
Pretrial confinement also increases the likelihood of conviction. Pretrial confinement-or just the threat of confinement-prompts defendants to plead guilty and give up their right to trial. Most persons accused of low level offenses when faced with a bail amount they cannot make will accept a guilty plea; if they do not plea at arraignment, they will do so after having been in detention a week or two. Guilty pleas account for 99.6 percent of all convictions of New York City misdemeanor defendants.
The report calls for the creation of a pretrial supervision program to make sure defendants who cannot be released before trial, but also cannot afford bail to stay out of jail prior to their court date, show up.