Bail System In Need Of Reform

One of the basic tenets of the American criminal justice system is a person is innocent until proven guilty.

In New York, that might as well be guilty unless you have enough money to post bail. In that case, you’re going to jail without being convicted of a crime.

That is the reality for many poor people who have trouble posting a minimum amount of bail for a petty, nonviolent crime.

New York is one of four states which restrict bail decisions to whether or not a person is a flight risk. There is no consideration of the defendant’s threat to public safety. There are no possible diversionary programs.

Judges in Chautauqua County do the best they can with what they have to work with. Setting a low bail amount – $100 or $150, for example- might as well be a million dollars for some nonviolent defendants in the county. The problem is no other program is available to judges.

That lack of alternatives manifests itself in many ways.

Sheriff Joe Gerace recently said there are currently 70 inmates in the Chautauqua County Jail facing a misdemeanor charge. They are in the jail because they were given a break before and either committed a crime again or didn’t appear in court in the first place. Taxpayers spend $64 a day to keep those people in the jail. If it takes a person two weeks to get a court date, county taxpayers are on the hook for between $800 or $1,000 for one nonviolent, misdemeanor defendant.

It is with these thoughts in mind that we view New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s proposals to reform the bail system in New York. Lippman proposes to give judges the ability to take public safety into account when considering bail, which would mean taking into account the actual threat to the community as well as the defendant’s status as a flight risk. To make sure people appear in court, Lippman is also asking for expansion of supervised release programs that monitor defendants awaiting trial and provide them access to social services, like programs to help overcome drug and alcohol abuse. Lippman said it costs about $15,000 less a year per defendant to manage them through the court process than to lock them up.

We don’t want a dangerous person released from jail. Setting high bail for those who have committed violent acts is a powerful tool for judges to keep the public safe. At the same time, it’s unfair to those charged with nonviolent crimes to make them sit in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.