Over 100 Community, Legal, and Advocacy Groups Send Recommendations to Governor Cuomo for Effective Bail Reform in New York
Momentum Building for Meaningful Change to Move New York Forward
New York: As momentum continues to build for bail reform in New York, yesterday, over 100 statewide and regional community groups, including advocacy and public defense organizations, sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo recommending how to achieve bail reform in the state. The urgent need for bail reform in New York is clear: thousands of people are being detained every year in jails simply because they cannot afford to buy their freedom, contributing to profound racial disparities in the state’s justice system.
Governor Cuomo has repeatedly expressed his interest in bail reform, including in his last two State of the State addresses. Advocates share an interest in sensible, effective reform.
While the governor’s office continues its deliberation about reform options, some officials across the state, like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, have issued specific proposals that have raised alarms with community groups and advocates, particularly about changing the statute to include “dangerousness” and expanding the use of risk assessment instruments that exacerbate racial disparities.
The coalition of over 100 community-based organizations and advocacy groups from around the state sent the detailed letter to Governor Cuomo to express their concerns with such proposals.
“At a time when the public and policymakers have prioritized reducing the State’s jail population, we should reject the inclusion of additional reasons to jail presumptively innocent people,” the letter says. Advocates also outlined key principles and guidelines to achieve real bail reform, and to make clear their interest in collaborating with the Governor in the effort. “We would welcome the opportunity to work with you on developing a plan of action to safeguard constitutional rights, reduce jail populations, and build communities,” they wrote.
Statements from community leaders and advocates about the need for bail reform in New York and how to achieve it:
“When I was 20 years old I was arrested for a violent crime that I did not commit and my bail was set at $10,000,” said Roger Clark, community leader at VOCAL-NY. “It was my first arrest, and my family could not afford the bail. I was so terrified and stressed to be in the extremely violent environment at Rikers Island that I pled guilty just so that I could go home, even though the District Attorney had no evidence against me. It’s time for reform.”
“I was detained on Rikers for over six weeks while my mom was trying to gather the funds from family members to pay my $2,500 bail,” said Michael Muir, a community leader at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. “My mom paid the bondsman but even though the judge exonerated the bail, none of the bondsman fees have been returned to us. It’s more than just the money. People are getting hurt on a daily basis in these jails. There are 7 other forms of bail under New York law that can actually help but those aren’t being used by judges, and that’s not right.”
“In June 2015 I was arrested and received a $75,000 bail – I could not afford that and even though I was innocent, I spent the next 18 months on Rikers Island until my case was dismissed. Never once that entire time was my bail reduced, even after it became clear that I had done nothing wrong. We need reform now.” said Darryl Herring, community leader at VOCAL-NY.
“We are very concerned about any bail reform that has a ‘dangerousness’ standard,” said Mark Williams, President of the Chief Defenders Association of New York and Public Defender of Cattaraugus County. “Throughout all of Upstate New York there are hundreds and hundreds of non-lawyer judges that already have a difficult time determining when and how bail should be set. And many people that are sent to jail are sent there without good cause. They tend to be the poorest amongst us and they tend to be people of color. And these folks are losing their jobs, their families and any chance to effectively assist in their defense. Bail reform must take into account that most individuals jailed on bail are placed there by non-lawyer judges after an arraignment in the middle of the night without counsel present. There have been improvements with an attorney at every arraignment but too often the local judges set bail for the wrong reasons or in amounts that are out of the reach of a poor person.”
“Undoing the damage of mass incarceration must be the first priority of bail reform in New York,” said Justine Olderman, Acting Executive Director at the Bronx Defenders. “Asking judges to consider a person’s ‘dangerousness’ when setting bail would undermine that effort by exacerbating racial disparities and likely increasing the use of pretrial detention, all while failing to make New York safer. We should be working to eliminate money bail and pretrial detention altogether for people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies and to ensure meaningful due process for everyone charged with a crime. We look forward to working with the Governor to make our pretrial justice system fairer for everyone.”
“For the presumption of innocence to mean anything, we must ensure that pretrial detention is the exception and not the rule. Everyone must be afforded the opportunity to fight the accusations against them from home, with the support of their families and with meaningful access to their attorneys—not from a jail cell at Rikers Island. We can reform New York’s pretrial release system without adding dangerousness or risk assessments that will only create further racial and wealth disparity in our criminal justice system. Above all, we must prioritize the decarceration of New Yorkers,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice & the Decarceration Project.
“Money bail is being rightfully challenged throughout the country because it represents the worst forms of creating a profit motive from excessively and unnecessarily placing black and brown bodies in cages throughout New York State,” said Juan Cartagena, President & General Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “New York should learn from the lessons of other jurisdictions and take on the mantle of leading the way to ensure that incapacity to post money bail is not the reason for incarcerating people presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.”
“The call to end money bail is urgent, but we must ensure there is a humane alternative in place that does not exacerbate racial disparities,” said Elena Weissmann, Director of Bronx Operations at the Bronx Freedom Fund. “Rather than codifying bias, we call on Governor Cuomo to bolster and center existing alternatives, such as unsecured appearance bonds and an end to Broken Windows arrests. The results of our work over the last decade demonstrate not only the needlessness of cash bail to ensure court appearance, but also how relying on the presumption of innocence instead of racialized data leads to better case outcomes and more stable communities.”
“The cash bail system is coercive, destructive, and fundamentally unjust,” said Judy Whiting, General Counsel at the Community Service Society of New York. “It exclusively impacts low income communities and communities of color, does little to advance the workings of justice, and presently operates as yet another tentacle of a punitive system that preys upon the poor. The Bail Project reports that ’90 percent of people held in jail on bail plead guilty just to go home, though they did not commit the crime.’ So for New Yorkers living in poverty, cash bail literally muscles people into pleading to things they did not do, suffering lifelong collateral consequences as a result. This is far from an exercise in justice. It is for these reasons that the Community Service Society supports comprehensive cash bail reform that, among other things, limits the use of pretrial detention and increases fairness.”
“For over 30 years the Madison County Bail Fund, Inc. protected the civil rights of low income persons accused of crimes by enabling their freedom before trial,” said Marianne Simberg, President of the Board of the Madison County Bail Fund. “Volunteers, using unsecured bonds, interviewed and provided Bail to non-violent offenders; allowing their return to dependent families and productive employment, while reducing unnecessary pre-trial detention expenses to County taxpayers. Throughout that 30 years, all such persons were bailed without harm to our community nor financial loss from the founding grant and donation which have provided all funding and grown substantially. However, 2012 State legislation has severely restricted our program by limiting us to $2,000 cash bail and only allowing misdemeanors to be bailed; all by licensed Bail Bondsmen. Since counties like Madison are often too small to attract visits by commercial Bondsmen, this new legislation has left the poorest of our citizens without alternatives to imprisonment without trial.”
“LGBTQI immigrants in NYC are unjustly criminalized for just existing, and targeted by the NYPD on a regular basis,” said Jamila Hammami, Executive Director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project. “The end of cash bail is not only imperative, but needs to occur immediately. Immigrants in NYC do not have the resources to pay the exorbitant cash bail funds to ensure their freedom. Without humane alternatives, immigrants will continue to be incarcerated and picked up by Immigration Customs & Enforcement through ICE detainers otherwise.”
“The idea that someone who is innocent in the eyes of the law can be denied their freedom simply due to their financial circumstances, thereby risking hardships like a loss of employment, is an anathema to numerous principles Americans hold dear,” said Dr. Alice P. Green, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Justice. “Education efforts are critical to the bail reform movement as they bring to light the injustice of existing bail practices and demonstrate how bail is incompatible with the values embraced by many voters.”
View the full letter here.