Bail Penalizes City's Poor Defendants: Report

Thousands who can't afford bail spend an average of 16 days in jail

Thousands of people arrested each year on minor charges in New York City cannot afford to post bail and on average spend 16 days in jail while awaiting trial, according to a new report by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

Most of the defendants were accused of low-level offenses such as shoplifting, turnstile jumping, trespassing, drug possession and prostitution, the group said.

The 70-page report, "The Price of Freedom: Bail and Pretial Detention of Low Income Nonfelony Defendants in New York City," was released Thursday.

It said more than 16,000 non-felony defendants who had bail set at $1,000 or less in 2008 were unable to post bail. That's more than 8 in 10 of the people whose bail was set at the low amounts.

But more than three-quarters of all non-felony defendants were released on their own recognizance, the report said.

Under state law, judges are supposed to take defendants' financial resources and other factors into account when setting bail.

"For people scrambling to pay the rent each month, finding $1,000 for bail can be as impossible as finding $1,000,000," said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel with the group's U.S. program and the report's author. "Bail punishes the poor because they cannot afford to buy their pretrial freedom."

Human Rights Watch said it calculated that the city could have saved about $42 million in 2008 on 16,649 non-felony defendants unable to make bail.

The report was based on unpublished data and interviews with judges, defendants, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, whose office was among those interviewed by the group, said the report raised an important issue.

"My office is committed to request bail only when it will ensure a defendant's return to court to face criminal charges and never solely on the basis of the defendant's inability to pay," he said.

Hynes said he supported a recommendation in the report that the city create a pretrial supervised release program for non-felony defendants unable to make bail — a more cost-effective alternative to incarceration.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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