New York City judges have signed orders allowing 22 defendants to be released from jail next month, before the state's new bail laws take effect in January.
Starting January 1st, money bail can no longer be imposed on anyone accused of a misdemeanor or non-violent felony, which account for about 90 percent of all offenses. Judges can still set bail on those accused of violent felonies such as murder, rape and first degree robbery, if they’re considered a flight risk.
The new laws were enacted to prevent low income defendants from being held in jail while awaiting trial simply because they can't afford bail. They were supported by criminal justice reformers, most Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The Office of Court Administration has said 800-900 defendants accused of non-violent felonies and misdemeanors could be sitting in city jails on December 31st, based on data from the city’s Department of Correction. That figure is considered fluid, because the number of inmates held in city jails is constantly changing.
To avoid a rush when the bail laws change, city judges have been allowed since early November to consider releasing defendants who can't be held after December 31st. But sources say the fact that only 22 defendants were granted upcoming release dates could mean some judges want to hold them in jail as long as possible. It’s also possible the defendants haven't had their next court hearings.
Lucian Chalfan, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said the 22 individuals will be released next month between December 19th and 31st. They are accused of charges including burglary and robbery in the second degree, grand larceny and narcotics.
“Judges have been made aware of the prospective securing orders that they may use should they choose to modify a defendant’s bail prior to January 1st, 2020,” he said. “As we get closer to the January 1st date, we expect more orders will be signed.”
However, it’s not known how many individuals were released already without the securing orders. Earlier this month, a suspected drug dealer accused of selling fentanyl that resulted in a fatal overdose praised Gov. Andrew Cuomo upon his release from jail by a Manhattan judge.
Jose “Catano” Jorge was remanded to Rikers in March. He’s charged with multiple felonies including criminal sale of a controlled substance and conspiracy. But because those charges are no longer eligible for bail in January, he was released at a mid-November court appearance.
State Supreme Court Judge Abraham Clott said the only reason to delay Jorge’s release would be if he thought the bail laws would change before January to allow “a meaningful monetary condition, especially electronic monitoring.”
Electronic monitoring is allowed under the new law, but the state doesn’t have a contract yet with any providers.
The city’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor, Bridget Brennan, argued that Jorge should remain in Rikers.
“Releasing Jose ‘Catano’ Jorge from jail with no meaningful restrictions is deeply disturbing,” her spokeswoman said in a statement. “He is charged with selling lethal fentanyl and was recorded bragging that a customer’s death is good for business.”
She added that in the middle of an opioid epidemic, New York is now requiring the immediate release of people charged with high volume fentanyl and heroin sales, “regardless of ties to foreign countries, access to lots of money, and lengthy sentences they could face.”
At his court hearing this month, Jorge’s defense attorney said his client “understands his responsibility to come to court… He takes these charges very seriously.”
When the new bail law goes into effect in January, defendants like Jorge will be eligible for pre-trial supervision to make sure they keep returning to court. But no supervision was ordered for Jorge because of a technicality. Although judges began reviewing cases in November, the city is not expanding its supervised release program until December 1st.
The city has an existing program, but Colby Hamilton, a spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said it can’t accommodate defendants facing more serious charges until enhancements are made next month, including extra services and counseling. The city is spending $37.4 million on supervised release in the current fiscal year. That amount will soar to more than $116 million in fiscal year 2021 thanks to help from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which is using funds recovered from the investigations of major banks.
Prior to the program’s expansion on December 1st, Hamilton said judges “have a full array of options available under the law now,” such as holding someone in jail right until the bail laws change.
Critics of the new laws, including prosecutors, are calling on Albany to revise them before January. One bipartisan proposal would allow judges to look at past convictions and arrest records so they can still set bail at their discretion. But the legislature would have to convene again before January to pass such a change.