Bail Means Jail for Poor

Human Rights Watch’s latest report The Price of Freedom: Bail and Pretrial Detention of Low Income Nonfelony Defendants in New York City is a study that addresses the pretrial incarceration of New York City defendants accused of non-felony crimes, such as shoplifting, smoking marijuana or disorderly conduct in 2008. It states that in about three out of four of total 117,064 cases studied, defendants were released on their own recognizance. But for 19,137 people, bail was set at $1,000 or less and most of those defendants were unable to pay. In 87% of the cases (16,649), the defendants were not able to post bail at their arraignment and were incarcerated pending trial. The average length of pretrial detention was 15.7 days. Almost three out of four (71.1%) were accused of nonviolent, non-weapons related crimes. At any given moment, 39% of the city’s jail population consists of felony and non-felony pretrial detainees who are in jail because they have not posted bail. The report is worth reading for all its statistical information on bail such as that contained in this table.

The report suggests implentation of pretrial supervision program as an alternative to pretrial detention from both a cost and a human rights perspective. Pretrial supervision would not only honor the presumption of innocence, but would save the city tens of millions of dollars in jail costs. It also states that pretrial confinement increases the likelihood of conviction. Pretrial confinement prompts defendants to plead guilty and give up their right to trial. The Brooklyn Law School Library has in its catalog a two part report from 2008 titled Bail, Detention, & Felony Case Outcomes and Pretrial Detention and Case Outcomes, Part 2: Felony Cases by Mary T. Phillips. While it deals with felonies rather than misdemeanors, it states that “A conviction was more likely in cases with a defendant who was detained, as opposed to released, at arraignment. Citywide, 59% of cases with a released defendant ended in a conviction, compared to 74% of a detained defendant.”