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New York City’s Bail Success Story

by Bill Barton

A new study that analyzed more than 5 million criminal cases in New York City — beginning in 1987 — intimates that the city has “already done a better job of slashing its use of bail and jail than nearly any other urban area in the United States,” despite high-profile cases such as that of 16-year-old Kalief Browder, who was held in Rikers Island jail for three years because his family was unable to pay the $3,000 bail. Browder later committed suicide, allegedly spurred in part by his experiences in jail. It appears that a paradigm shift on the part of judges and other decision-makers is the reason for this change, rather than new statutes or court rules. As the study shows, “Judges have drastically cut back on bail and jail in criminal cases. And defendants are still showing up in court.” The city’s return-to-court rate is 86 percent versus about 75 percent nationwide. 

Data released by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency show that the percentage of cases in which bail is set has dropped from 48 percent to 23 percent and that the rate at which defendants are released without having to pay any money has increased from 50 percent to 76 percent. That compares with a national average of approximately 45 percent to 50 percent and a low of 11 percent in the city of New Orleans, according to The Marshall Project. “As a result, New York City’s jail population has dropped from nearly 22,000 in 1991 to about 7,800 this year, making it the least incarcerated major city in the United States — by a long shot. Much of that improvement has occurred in just the past few years.” And further, “This seismic change in how the nation’s largest city handles bail and jail is the result not of top-down change in the system but of thousands of small shifts in courtrooms every day. Whereas California, New Jersey, Maryland and a handful of other states have tried to eliminate money bail legislatively or through a court order—with mixed success—New York has done so organically, potentially offering a model for other large cities in otherwise recalcitrant states.” 

As The Marshall Project also points out, “Like many states, New York has a bail law that is half a century old…. Criminal justice reformers around the country are admonishing the Empire State to change its system, arguing that having to pay money to get out of jail unfairly targets the poor. And a newly elected Democratic majority in Albany is eager to heed those calls, as lawmakers this month pore over the final details of a bill that would make New York the third state to abolish money bail. That’s why Democrats in the New York State Assembly still see top-down legislative reform as necessary, despite the state’s largest city already being so ahead of the curve.” 



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