Racial Equity: Bail taking a toll on low-income families

Jul 23, 2018

In courtrooms across New York, the bail system helps guarantee defendants show up for their cases. But critics say the system hurts low-income families; if they can’t put up thousands of dollars, they have to sit in jail.

States like New Jersey, California and New Mexico have already reformed their bail structure. Now, reform in New York State is being looked at as well.


In New York State there’s a daily average of 25,000 people in jails. In Erie County there’s about 1,200 and about two-thirds are being detained pretrial because they can’t post bail.

Some of those folks are housed at the Erie County Holding Center. It’s located on the justice corridor in downtown Buffalo. On each side of the Delaware Avenue, extending about two blocks, are buildings related to law enforcement.

One of them is the Buffalo City Court Building, a concrete high-rise shaped like a blunt fork. It’s where Rebecca Town, Legal Aid defense attorney, works with people who don’t have a lot of money. She says the cash bail system has a domino effect and it’s like being punished before actually found guilty.

“They may have a minimum wage job, a service sector job, and the first day they’re a no-call no-show, they’ve lost that job,” Town said. “You don’t move your car to the side of the street before you go into custody and it sits there, and it gets towed, and the impound fees add up, and the parking tickets, and the license is suspended and the registration is suspended.”

The Partnership for the Public good examined the issue. They recently sat in on more than 200 City Court cases. Andrea Ó Súilleabháin is the deputy director for the partnership. She says some people get cash bail, not just for misdemeanors and felonies, but for violations. 

“That’s the lowest level criminal charge you can have. We saw it even for things like disorderly conduct,” Ó Súilleabháin said.

The partnership’s report also highlighted some racial disparities. It stated that 54 percent of whites were released without bail, while only 37 percent of blacks and 32 percent of Latinos were released without bail.

Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed eliminating money bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn supports the idea of New York State bail reform, but says only under certain circumstances. He said, some defendants repeatedly don't show up for court.

“If I have an individual who has multiple bench warrants or a history of bench warrants, and he only has a misdemeanor, now on a new offense," he said, "as a DA, I’m going to say to the judge, ‘Judge, I get it, it’s only a misdemeanor here, but Mr. Smith has a history of not coming to court. We’ve got to put some bail on him.'”

But his office doesn’t actually set the bail. That responsibility falls to the judges.

City Court Judge Debra Givens says there are alternatives to cash bail, like the release under supervision program. She sometimes offers it to those who come into her courtroom. It’s a program where defendants are released and monitored through the probation office.

“Obviously, we don’t want people languishing over in the Holding Center, especially with things that are happening in jails these days," she said.

She said bail is not a simple issue and judges take many factors into consideration, but hopefully things will become easier when statewide bail reform takes place.