NEW YORK – The New York Civil Liberties Union released a report today on five years of bail data in eight small, medium and large upstate New York counties, which found tens of thousands of New Yorkers spent time in jail before trial because they could not make bail.
The report, Presumed Innocent for a Price, draws from 2010-2014 data obtained through public records requests and reveals that, in the eight counties examined alone, more than 90,000 New Yorkers spent a day or longer in custody on bail. Though the harms of cash bail are clear – people lose jobs, homes, and families – the scope of the state bail problem outside of New York City has not been well understood. The new NYCLU report finds that, of the more than 100,000 pretrial detainees in the eight counties during this period, the majority were held on misdemeanors and violations.
“Under the law you are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but our data shows that cash bail forces tens of thousands of New Yorkers to serve time before they get their day in court,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “New York legislators need to pass comprehensive bail reform now to ensure no one is punished because they can’t pay for their release. Rights shouldn’t come with a price tag.”
The NYCLU data in Presumed Innocent for a Price comes from Albany, Dutchess, Monroe, Niagara, Orange, Schenectady, Ulster, and Westchester counties. Key findings in the report include:
- More than 90,000 New Yorkers spent a day or longer in custody on bail.
- More than 45,000 were held for a week or longer.
- 60 percent were held on bail with only a misdemeanor or violation as their most serious charge.
- Black pretrial detainees were twice as likely as white pretrial detainees to spend at least one night in custody on bail.
- More than 21,000 spent at least one night in custody on a bail of $500 or less.
In district attorney offices, the state legislature, the courts, and communities across the state, momentum is growing to reform bail practices that keep thousands of New Yorkers locked up while they should be presumed innocent. In January, in the first judicial ruling of its kind in New York, Dutchess County Supreme Court sided with the NYCLU in a lawsuit challenging unaffordable bail, ruling that judges must consider alternatives to cash bail as well as a defendant’s ability to pay.
The NYCLU analysis gives urgency to state budget negotiations this month, in which lawmakers will consider criminal justice reform proposals that include bail practices. Presumed Innocent for a Price suggests a number of reforms to bail practices across the state, including that people charged with minor offenses should be released before trial; jail time should only be used when nothing else will ensure someone returns to court; bail should not exceed what someone can afford, should not be set without lawyers present and should be revisited by judges if the bail amount results in jail time; and that judges should be required to consider alternatives to cash bail and to put their reasoning for any bail decision in writing.
The NYCLU will participate in a day of action in Albany tomorrow, March 14, with JustLeadershipUSA and other organizations to advocate for comprehensive criminal justice reforms, including fixes to New York’s bail, speedy trial and evidence-sharing practices.