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Mass Incarceration Takes A Hit in New York City: Bail for Non-Violent Crimes Banned — End to Legal Kidnapping and Ransom

Collecting ransom from poor people for non-violent crimes has become a big business in America. (Photo by Ken Teegardin)
Collecting ransom from poor people for non-violent crimes has become a big business in America.
(Photo by Ken Teegardin)

By Jake Pearson
Thousands of New Yorkers accused of low-level or non-violent crimes won't face the prospect of raising cash for bail under a plan that seeks to keep such suspects out of the troubled Rikers Island jail complex.

The $18 million city plan, detailed to The Associated Press ahead of the announcement on Wednesday, allows judges beginning next year to replace money-bail for about 3,000 low-risk defendants with supervision options including regular check-ins, text-message reminders and connecting them with drug or behavioral therapy.

Cash bail has long been criticized by inmate advocates for unfairly targeting poor people. And reforms were recommended by a mayoral task force last year after the AP reported on the case of a mentally ill homeless man who was unable to make $2,500 bail for trespassing and died in a sweltering hot Rikers cell.

More calls for reform gained traction after the suicide last month of 22-year-old Kalief Browder. When he was 16 years old, Browder was unable to make $3,000 bail on charges he stole a backpack. He ended up being held in Rikers for three years, beaten by inmates and guards alike and held in solitary confinement before charges against him were eventually dropped.

"I think the basic principle is that Kalief Browder and other cases have begun to signify this (need for reform) in the public eye," said Elizabeth Glazer, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator. "We want to focus on risk to be the determining factor to decide if someone will be in or out; and it has to be risk, not money."

Currently, about 41 percent of criminal defendants who pass through New York City courts annually are released on their own recognizance and another 14 percent, or 45,500 people, are held on bail.

About 87 percent of the 1,100 people on supervised release in already-existing city pilot programs return to court when they're supposed to, officials said.

Initial funding, provided by the Manhattan district attorney, allows for as many as 3,000 defendants charged with misdemeanors or non-violent felonies to bypass bail, letting them live with their families and keep their jobs while their cases wind through the courts. Officials say they would like to expand non-bail options to include thousands more.

Advocates hailed the decision Wednesday, saying expanding options beyond cash bail for poor people accused of non-violent crimes will help make the criminal justice system fairer.

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