NEW YORK CITY — Nonviolent criminals who are being held behind bars because they can't afford to post bail would be placed into a supervised release program through a $17.8 million plan announced Wednesday by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The program would free up to 3,000 people accused of non-violent felony crimes who would otherwise languish in the city's jails because they are too poor to post relatively low cash bail amounts before their case goes to trial, the city said.
“Money bail is a problem because — as the system currently operates in New York — some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose," de Blasio said in a statement.
"This is unacceptable. If people can be safely supervised in the community, they should be allowed to remain there regardless of their ability to pay," the mayor added.
De Blasio's effort, which will be funded with $4 million in taxpayer money and $13.8 million in asset forfeiture funds from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., will coincide with the recently announced citywide bail fund proposed by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
Under the $1.4 million bail fund, people accused of misdemeanors will be eligible to have bail posted for them. De Blasio's effort would expand the city's initiative to address those accused of more serious, but non-violent felonies.
The city is now looking for a nonprofit group to supervise defendants while they await their criminal cases. The program will use a risk assesment tool to select eligible candidates and determine their level of supervision, officials said. That tool is still being developed.
The city would be looking for people who are deemed not to be a risk to public safety as well as defendants who would typically be given a low cash bail. Depending on the determined level of supervision, defendants may have to check in physically or by phone. Participants will also have access to social services, officials said.
Similar initiatives have already shown success during pilots in Queens and Manhattan, officials said. In the Queens pilot program, 87 percent of those under supervised release returned to court and met the requirements of the program.
The function of bail is to insure that the defendant returns to court. But according to the Pretrial Justice Institute, many people charged with low-level crimes in New York City are held simply because they can't afford to post bail as low as $500.
And criminal justice advocates add that there is little, if any, difference in the rate of return for defendants who are released without bail pending their next court date versus those who are released on a low bail.
Only 12 percent of defendants in the city's courts are able to post bail and leave court after they are arraigned. Fifty percent of defendants with a cash bail were unable to pay and remained behind bars until the time of their trial. The median cash bail is $1,000.
The New York Civil Liberties Union said 40 percent of the population on Rikers Island is there because they don't have the money to post cash bail.
“This is a huge step forward for justice in New York City,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute. “We applaud Mayor de Blasio for leading the charge to make risk, and not money, the deciding factor in who stays in jail before trial."
Many people held on low bails for minor offenses also face the loss of a job or housing while they are behind bars, leaving them unable to make a living or forcing them into homelessness when they are released.
The changes come in the wake of 22-year-old Kalief Browder's suicide last month. Browder spent three years at Rikers, from age 16 to 19, because his family could not afford to post $3,000 cash bail after he was accused of stealing a backpack. Browder never went to trial and was not found guilty of any charges before he was released.
Relatives said Browder never recovered from the beatings he endured from guards and fellow inmates and the mental trauma he suffered during the two years he spent in solitary confinement.
"Justice shouldn’t be a luxury for the rich. Yet every day, New Yorkers who have not been found guilty of a crime are subjected to the horrors of Rikers Island simply because they are too poor to afford bail," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement.
The plan was widely praised by everyone from law enforcement officials to criminal justice reform advocates.
Police Commissioner William Bratton said the plan "moves the city towards a more fair and equitable criminal justice system," while New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said it gave judges "more accurate and complete information" about defendants.