Who Needs the State? New York City Goes Rogue to Reform Bail

While state lawmakers have been locked in a stalemate on the issue, the city has implemented new rules and programs that have helped it achieve the lowest incarceration rate of any big U.S. city.
by | November 30, 2018
An inmate sitting on the floor making a phone call from jail.
(AP/Julie Jacobson)

SPEED READ:

  • “New York is really the test case of how much you can push bail reform absent of legislative action,” says Aubrey Fox, executive director of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency.
  • Mayor Bill de Blasio has made criminal justice reform a priority of his administration.
  • New York City's bail reforms have contributed to a 27 percent drop in the city's jail population and a one-third reduction in the number of people facing bail. The city now has the lowest incarceration rate of any big U.S. city.
 

Like many states, New York hasn't changed its bail procedures in more than 40 years. Despite increasing calls for bail reform around the country, only California has eliminated cash bail and only a handful of other states -- including Alaska, Delaware, New Jersey and New Mexico -- have reformed their systems to cut down on people sitting in jail because they can't afford bail.

New York City got tired of waiting on the state.

Over the past three years, the city has implemented and expanded a series of programs and rules meant to lower the number of people who have to pay bail in the first place or who have to sit in jail -- often for months -- if they can't afford it.

“New York is really the test case of how much you can push bail reform absent of legislative action,” says Aubrey Fox, executive director of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, a nonprofit that assists the city’s bail diversion program.

It turns out, cities can make meaningful change on their own.

Over the past four years, the city has reduced the number of defendants facing bail by almost one-third, its jail population has dropped by 27 percent, and it now has the lowest incarceration rate of any big U.S. city, according to New York City’s Office of Criminal Justice. (During that time, arrests were down citywide, which contributed to these drops.)

The city reached another milestone recently, helping the 10,000th defendant avoid bail and instead await trial under supervised release, which is the anchor of the city's bail changes. The city has partnered with nonprofits that help evaluate whether a defendant should qualify for supervised release, and if so, work with the defendant to make sure they attend all their court dates.

“There is a social worker assigned to the case. The defendants have to call, and they have to come in. The amount of contact is determined by the social worker,” says Fox. “If they have other needs like counseling, drug treatment or need help with a job, our social workers can offer those supports.”

Since the program launched, 87 percent of defendants under supervised release have attended all their court dates, according to the New York City Criminal Justice Agency.

The supervised released program started as a pilot in 2009. In 2015, a year after the inauguration of Mayor Bill de Blasio who set his sights on reforming the city’s criminal justice system, the city pumped more than $17 million into expanding the effort across all five boroughs.

“The mayor wants to eliminate cash bail. He has been very clear that a lack of cash shouldn’t be the reason people are in jail,” says Elizabeth Glazer, director of New York City’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Under de Blasio, the city has also eliminated jail sentences of less than 30 days, launched an online bail website and expanded the bail expediters program, which places people inside the courthouses to coordinate bail payments with family members while simultaneously keeping judges and jailers abreast of the status of a bail payment. Bail expediters keep nearly 2,000 people a year from being booked into jail, according to New York City.

The city also passed new bail rules in 2017 aimed at reducing the number of people incarcerated. But it hasn't been living up to all of them.

According to a new analysis by the Bronx Freedom Fund, an organization that posts bail for low-income residents in the Bronx, the city regularly violates those 2017 rules. For instance, 76 percent of the organization's 238 clients who had bail posted from April to September were not released within four hours as required. And 70 percent were not given access to their contact information while in custody, which is often stored on phones seized during their arrest.

City officials acknowledge that improvements can be made to the system and note that several factors can delay the release of a defendant, such as needed medical or mental health care and outstanding warrants from other jurisdictions.

“We are always looking for ways to improve the bail process and make it faster,” says New York City Department of Correction Press Secretary Jason Kersten. “We expect to reduce our discharge time and streamline the process even more in the future.”

Meanwhile, up in the state capital, lawmakers have been locked in a stalemate over bail reform for years. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for bail reform, but his efforts have been blocked by the Republican-controlled state Senate. In November, however, the Democrats regained control of the Senate. Time will tell if the city gets an ally from above.