Are N.Y. Bail Changes A Double-Edged Sword?

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Tamika Mallory

Crime and punishment.  It’s pretty simple. Anyone who believes in fairness, equality, and justice cannot ignore the flaws in our criminal justice system. What people may not realize, however, is that in addition to profiling and other forms of discrimination, people of color and the poor face another challenge in places like New York:  a broken bail system.

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Earlier this week, Chief Judge Jonathan Lipmann proposed reforms to the bail process in his State of the Judiciary address. Instead of determining bail amounts based on how much of a flight risk an individual is, he argued for changes that would make bail more affordable so that non-violent offenders (mostly poor folks) would not be disproportionately locked up while violent offenders get released.

Though we, of course, don’t want criminals roaming around on our streets, at the same time, we have a system that currently criminalizes people before they get a fair trial.

That’s not the way justice is carried out.

Even though this kind of change is a progressive move that I applaud, we have to make sure that it, too, doesn’t turn into something dictated by a judge’s own bias.  That’s the last thing we need.

According the NY Times, a Human Rights Watch report found that there were 19,137 non-felony defendants arrested in N.Y.C. who had bail set at $1,000 or less. The report found that 87 percent of the defendants in those cases weren’t able to post bail and ended up in jail while awaiting trial (they remained for an average of 15.7 days).  In that same piece, there’s the story of a woman from Brooklyn who spent 12 days in jail – including eight days at notorious Rikers Island – because she couldn’t afford the $1,000 bail that was set after an officer arrested her because he claimed he saw her drop a crack pipe.

Her bail was eventually reduced to $250, and to add insult to injury, the case was dropped “because a lab test showed there was no drug residue on the pipe,” according to the Times.

What kind of system is that?

Do we really want people who are arrested for petty crimes like jumping a train turnstile to stay in tough jails with hardened criminals?  That doesn’t help anyone.

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