If you are looking for a long depressing read today, look no further than Human Rights Watch's new report on bail and the pretrail treatment of low income nonfelony defendants in the city (i.e. people caught smoking dope in public or jumping turnstiles). The problem, as HRW sees it, is that almost a quarter of jail admissions in 2008 were pretrail detainees charged with misdemeanors who hadn't made bail. They remained incarcerated for an average of 15.7 days. And these are not insignificant numbers—they calculate at a cost of $161 per inmate per day "the city could have saved at least $42 million if it had not incarcerated the 16,649 nonfelony defendants arrested in 2008 who were unable to make bail of $1,000 or less." And let's face it, if you are strapped for cash, even a $500 bail can be as unachievable as at quarter-million dollar one.
In theory, judges are supposed to set bail at an amount calculated to reasonably ensure that defendants return to court, and are supposed to take a person's finances into account. But for various reasons—including the fact that in the whirlwind of activity that comes with an arrest it can be difficult to get an accurate assessment of a defendants money situation—it often doesn't seem to happen that way. And while judges have every right to set bail at a level beyond a defendant's means (to better assure they will actually be there for their day in court) the HRW's heavily-sourced review of court-processing data found that "84 percent of released defendants show up for all their court proceedings; and most of those who miss a scheduled court appearance come back to court within 30 days." They argue that by setting high-bails, judges are pressuring defendants to plead guilty so as to avoid further time in jail waiting for their day in court.
Not everyone agrees with HRW's conclusions though. One judge explains to the Times that setting a high bail as a form of pretrail sentencing to force a settlement doesn't make sense: “It’s really counterintuitive because those judges are going to be handling the cases all the way through,” she said. “Why would they want a heavier caseload? That to me is a purely political take on what is really a complicated judicial decision.”
Meanwhile, HRW has a few ideas for how to fix things. Namely they propose that city judges should be more careful in setting bail and consider setting it in the form of unsecured appearance bonds, where you promise to pay only if you don't show up to court. They also suggest that New York develop a pretrial supervised release program for nonfelony defendants who do not have the resources to post bail. Both of which, if it means not only saving the city millions of dollars but also helping maintain the dignity of thousands of New Yorkers (who, remember, are innocent until proven guilty), sound like good ideas to us.