NY Chief Judge Announces Reforms to State's "Intolerable" Bail System

More than half of defendants who cannot afford their bail in New York City spend their entire pre-trial detention in jail. (Photo: NY Daily News)

NY Chief Judge Announces Reforms to State's "Intolerable" Bail System

Invoking suicide of Kalief Browder, judge says it is "fundamentally unfair for a person's liberty to be all about how much money you have."

New York's chief judge on Thursday announced a new plan to overhaul the state's bail law, which he said unjustly punishes the poor and forces them to "serve a sentence before their cases are ever resolved."

Judge Jonathan Lippmann, who is set to retire at the end of the year, made his announcement in a speech at the Citizens Crime Commission breakfast meeting in Manhattan. He said the courts could no longer wait for lawmakers to take on punitive rules after his proposed bill to reform the bail law failed in State Legislature two years in a row.

"Defendants who are unable to post bail serve a sentence before their cases are ever resolved," Lippmann said. "They do so regardless of innocence or guilt, and the harm that this injustice causes is intolerable."

Lippmann said he would use the existing legal framework to set up automatic bail reviews for misdemeanor charges in each borough, which would require judges to reconsider bail costs within 10 days. Judges would also be required to check in on pending felony cases and lower or eliminate bails if the prosecution against defendants has weakened.

Lippmann would also urge judges to consider using alternatives to bail, such as electronic monitoring, or simply setting an affordable cost. Judges and clerks would also be trained in accepting less-known payment methods, such as the use of a credit card or payment of bond directly to the courts, rather than defaulting to predatory bond insurance companies.

"Make no mistake, in my view, the ultimate goal may well be to end our reliance on cash bail in New York," Lippmann said. "It is fundamentally unfair for a person's liberty to be all about how much money you have."

About 14 percent of people arraigned in New York City are sent to jail because they can't afford their bail, and more than half of them remain incarcerated until their trials, according to the Office of Court Administration (OCA). Meanwhile, the OCA said, the average cost of detention in New York City is $100,000 annually--"drastically" more than the price of electronic monitoring.

To depict the devastating toll of the bail system, Lippmann invoked the story of Kalief Browder, who was arrested at 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack and spent the next three years at Rikers Island awaiting a trial that never came, trapped behind a $3,000 bail he couldn't afford. While there, a teenage Browder was subjected to abuse from guards and inmates and held in long periods of time in solitary confinement before prosecutors eventually dismissed the case.

His ordeal, detailed in a 2014 New Yorkerprofile, helped bring national attention to another layer of the state's dysfunctional justice system. But it also left Browder with deep psychological trauma and depression. At 22, less than a year after his story became public, Browder committed suicide.

Being sent to jail before trial "can tear apart the very fabric of people's lives," Lippmann said. "Far too many people are trapped in pretrial detention simply because they are poor."

Legal nonprofits applauded Lippmann's announcement. "We are extremely encouraged by Chief Judge Lippman's announcement today regarding bail reform," said Tina Luongo, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society. "As the primary public defender in New York City representing over 200,000 indigent people, we see the devastating effects that bail and pretrial detention create in the lives of our clients and families. For many of our clients, bail as low as five hundred dollars is unaffordable and forces people to plead guilty to escape the horrors of Rikers Island and return to their families."

Lippmann said the reforms would "make major strides in overhauling our broken system of bail.... Reforming the institution of bail in New York will go a long way toward ensuring that our justice system not only protects the public safety, but also is fair and just for each and every New Yorker, rich and poor alike."

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