The New York Civil Liberties Union will today testify before the New York City Council that it must immediately abolish cash bail for New Yorkers accused of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.

“Every day New Yorkers who have not been found guilty of a crime languish in jail simply because they are too poor to post bail,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The notion that any person should be incarcerated merely because they are poor offends the values and principles this country was built on. No New Yorker should lose their home, job, family or basic liberty just because they are poor.”

New York’s bail statute was passed in 1970 with the express purpose of creating a presumption for pretrial release, but today cash bail serves no other purpose other than to incarcerate people who are too poor to pay it, overwhelmingly New Yorkers from communities of color.

At any given time, almost 40 percent of the Rikers population is there solely because they cannot afford to pay their bail—sometimes for lack of a couple hundred dollars. While the purpose of bail is to secure a person’s appearance in court, the difference in the court appearance rates in New York City for people held on cash bell and people released on their own recognizance is negligible to the point of meaningless, according to the city’s own studies.

The recent heartbreaking story of Kalief Browder is a poignant example of the urgent need for reform. At 16-years-old Browder was sent to Rikers for a crime he insisted he did not commit and was never convicted of just because his family could not afford $3,000 bail. Browder sat there without a trial for three years, was brutalized repeatedly beaten by guards and other prisoners and spent nearly two years in solitary confinement. Unable to recover from the trauma and abuse, Browder two weeks ago pulled an air conditioner out of the wall of his family home, pushed himself through the hole and jumped feet first with a cord wrapped round his neck.

Among the NYCLU’s recommendations for reform are:

  • Releasing on their own recognizance people charged with misdemeanor or non-violent felony offenses who are eligible for bail under New York law. Any conditions of pre-trial release must be carefully tailored to avoid creating a heavy-handed pre-trial supervision system.
  • Tracking and reporting of results due to this policy change.
  • Educating and training for judges, prosecutors and defenders about New York’s bail statute and the rationale behind abolishing bail for low level crimes.
  • Investigating the for-profit bail bond industry in New York City to determine if further regulation of those practices is necessary.

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The New York Civil Liberties Union is a state affiliate of the ACLU

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