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New York Bail Reform Is Part Of Trend Away From Cash Punishment


New York City is changing its bail requirements. City officials announced this week that starting next year, many people accused of nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors will no longer have to pay bail. Instead, the low-level offenders will be under court supervision until their trial. The city says this program would reduce the number of people awaiting trial on Rikers Island. Joining us now is Karin Martin. She's professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Welcome.


GOODWYN: So what brought about this change to the bail system in New York City, and why specifically are we focused on Rikers?

MARTIN: We're focused on Rikers because it has the - an unfortunately-long history of horrible abuses of people, people dying and being injured and unfortunately, a lot of people have been there just awaiting trial. So essentially, Rikers is an excellent example of failing to save jail for people who are convicted, as opposed to people who have just been accused. So the changes in New York are coming about because there's something of a trend happening nationwide. We're realizing that we can't afford, both financially and kind of morally, the horrible impacts of mass incarceration. And New York is a great place to start with this type of reform.

GOODWYN: So what exactly will they replace bail with?

MARTIN: Yeah, there's lots of good options. So in New York specifically, they're going to be doing things like having people just get text reminders, offering people mental health and substance abuse treatment. The idea is that as opposed to making a person who tends to be more often than not poor pay money that they don't have, you do something else. The goal is just to get somebody back to court, right. And so there's lots of other ways to do that.

GOODWYN: I mean, explain a little bit more to me how it would work. They would text somebody, and you'd text back and that's how they'd keep track of where you are?

MARTIN: Right, well, the idea is that you just want somebody to come back to court. That is the point of bail. And so if somebody is low-risk to themselves, low-risk to society and they want themselves to be done and over with this, you know, incident, then you can just remind somebody to come and that will happen. So it could just be a text reminder - don't forget your court date. This is when it is. This is where you show up. And a lot of times that actually works quite well.

GOODWYN: Is this part of a trend against bail in this country?

MARTIN: I think it is perhaps the tip of a trend against bail. Advocates have been arguing that we need bail reform for quite a long time.

GOODWYN: Why reform? What has been wrong with the bail system up to this point?

MARTIN: It is extremely unfair. Essentially, what you're doing is taking people who have zero dollars and asking them to pay you dollars to preserve their own liberty. In New York, it's something like 45,000 people per year are detained on bail. And of those, 85 percent have a bail that they can't afford to pay, even though it's less than $500. And we have to keep in mind that in New York City, the cost of jail is something like $400 - at least $400 a day, so the math quickly does not add up.

GOODWYN: Which is why I'm wondering, you know, why does the system do it this way? How does the system benefit from the current way of asking for bail?

MARTIN: I think that it's kind of a version of inertia. I think, you know, the idea was that the most important thing we have in our society and culture is money, so if you take that away from somebody or threaten to take it away from them, then you can compel them to do what you want them to do, which is to return to court. And then we have an industry that this set up - often, you know, in any downtown area, you see the bail bondsmen is right next-door to the court. And so we have an industry that has a lot of entrenched interest to keep the current system alive and well.

GOODWYN: Karin Martin is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Karin, thank you.

MARTIN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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