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Last week the Department of Justice filed a court brief claiming that the state of Georgia’s practice of jailing defendants who can’t afford bail is unconstitutional. Now a Queens councilmember is pushing the DOJ to investigate the bail-or-jail system in New York for the same discriminatory problems it poses to the city’s low-income defendants.
“We’re still dealing with a system where people are being punished for their poverty,” Councilman Rory Lancman tells the Voice. “When I saw the DOJ had filed that amicus brief, my first thought was: What about New York City?”
In a letter sent to Attorney General Loretta Lynch and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara asking them to investigate the city’s bail system, Lancman notes that 53 percent of inmates at Rikers Island in 2014 were kept there solely because they couldn’t afford to make bail. In the same year, more than 6,000 people — 85 percent of defendants — were unable to post bail of $500 or less at arraignment, according to a report by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency.
Some 50,000 people are detained on bail in New York City’s criminal courts, with black and Latino defendants more likely than white defendants to be detained for not being able to post bail at arraignment.
Part of the reason why a vast majority of detainees on Rikers Island are people of color who can’t afford to post bail is that the NYPD maintains a continuing practice of targeting people of color, says Bob Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP).
“Lancman’s proposal for an investigation is a positive step in calling attention to a system that is racially biased, and policymakers need to recognize that broken-windows policing has something to do with it,” he says.
The DOJ’s brief concerns Walker v. City of Calhoun, in which a Georgia resident, Maurice Walker, was held in jail for over a week on a walking-while-intoxicated charge because he couldn’t afford the fixed $160 bail. The court brief filed by the federal government said that Walker’s incarceration violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses.
“Bail practices that do not account for indigence result in the unnecessary incarceration of numerous individuals who are presumed innocent,” states the brief.
Public outrage regarding the city’s bail system and unjust incarceration was intensified following the suicide of twenty-two-year-old Kalief Browder last summer, who was arrested at sixteen for stealing a backpack and held at Rikers for three years because his family couldn’t pay his $3,000 bail (charges against him were eventually dismissed).
But Councilman Lancman says that the mayor’s changes have had a minimal impact.
“It’s clear our system of bail as it’s practiced in the five boroughs is unconstitutional, and I’m very hopeful that the Justice Department will likewise look into the bail system in New York City and, if necessary, bring a lawsuit to effect change.”