Bail reform can help fix NYC criminal justice

Bail is not something most city residents have to think about. But the horribly sad story of Kalief Browder should force them to pay closer attention and seek change.

In 2010, Browder was accused of stealing a backpack, which he denied. He was 16 years old. His bail was set at $3,000 but his family couldn’t pay. Browder spent three years at Rikers Island. His case never went to trial and he was never found guilty of a crime. After The New Yorker profiled him last year, prison reform took on new urgency.

On Saturday, Browder committed suicide. He was 22. His lawyer said the Rikers experience had a permanent impact on Browder that he couldn’t overcome.

Browder has become the face of a far broader tragedy in the city’s criminal justice system. Huge changes must be made within prison walls, in the use of solitary confinement and treatment of juveniles. But reform of the process must start before those accused of low-level crimes cross the bridge that connects Rikers to the rest of the city.

Start with bail.

According to a 2011 NYC Independent Budget Office report, pretrial detainees make up 75 percent of the average daily jail population. Nearly half couldn’t post bail.

A city bail fund, as proposed by New York City Council leaders, could help some to pay bail and stay out of jail. In its first year, the nonprofit Bronx Freedom Fund, the first such licensed program in the state, helped 140 individuals, 98 percent of whom made all court appearances. More than half of the organization’s cases were dismissed. That could be a model for a citywide effort if it has strong guidelines, monitoring and standards for who qualifies.

Such a fund won’t and shouldn’t help everyone, but there’s more to do. The city should expand supervised release programs. Albany should consider reforms that could change bail decision criteria or expand the use of alternative payment forms, like surety bonds, where another person promises to post bail on the defendant’s behalf.

No one should have to sit in jail for months or years just because he is unable to pay. Bail reform has to be the first step toward repairing a broken system.

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