New York City Plans Support Network for Defendants Freed Under New Bail Laws

Wall Street Journal - November 17, 2019


New laws eliminating cash bail could free 20,000 pre-trial defendants

By Ben Chapman

With sweeping court reforms set to begin in New York state next year, New York City officials will spend millions ensuring thousands of defendants freed through the elimination of cash bail will return for their hearings.

Beginning Jan. 1, the new laws prohibit judges from imposing cash bail on defendants accused of misdemeanor offenses and nonviolent felonies. Instead, these defendants must be released on their own recognizance and instructed to return to court. Bail will remain an option for defendants accused of violent crimes.

The state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved the new laws as part of the budget earlier this year, making New York the latest in a growing number of states to reduce or eliminate cash bail in recent years. While proponents say bail is necessary to make sure defendants return to court, critics say it results in poorer defendants remaining in jail while wealthier ones go free.

The new laws could free 20,000 people or more from pretrial incarceration in New York City each year, according to a report published by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in September. Judges in New York City released about 105,000 people without bail ahead of their criminal hearings in 2018, according to the report. The number of defendants released without bail may grow to 125,000 or more in 2020 because of the new state laws, the report states.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, and the leadership of the New York Police Department have expressed concerns about the potential impact on public safety from the new bail policies. We need to reduce mass incarceration, Mr. de Blasio said when asked about the matter at an unrelated press briefing in Brooklyn on Nov. 6. At the same time, we have to protect the public.

To address those concerns, officials with the Mayors Office of Criminal Justice are launching a new program called Atlas to ensure defendants return to court for their hearings and avoid committing crimes while awaiting trial.

Officials said the Atlas program will offer free housing assistance, mentoring services, job training, family counseling and more to 10,000 defendants who are released before criminal trials each year. An estimated 7,000 defendants are expected to participate in the voluntary programs annually, according to the officials.

The program, which will cost tens of millions of dollars and begin in 2020, is meant to keep the public safe while ensuring people accused of crimes return to court, said Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayors Office of Criminal Justice.

“Some people commit crimes in a pretrial period, so the question is, what can we do to address that? We address crimes in every other context,” Ms. Glazer said. “And obviously public safety is of primary concern to us and every other New Yorker.”

In part because the participation of defendants is voluntary, Atlas differs from the citys existing mandatory supervised-release programs, where incentives, including tickets to Mets games and sporting events, are sometimes used to encourage defendants to participate in legal proceedings, Ms. Glazer said. Incentives may be a feature of Atlas programs as well, officials said, but the details are still being developed.

Critics believe the coming ban on cash bail could mean dangerous criminals are released into the public. State Assemblyman Michael Reilly, a Staten Island Republican and former NYPD officer, said voluntary programs such as Atlas arent sufficient to ensure public safety.

“We have no mechanism to ensure that people who are released are going to accept those resources, or that they’ll be sufficient to prevent recidivism,” said Mr. Reilly.

Divine Pryor, co-founder of the New York City-based Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, a criminal-justice reform group, said Atlas represents a good first step.

“Collateral damage from an arrest may be substantial, even if there is no conviction,” Mr. Pryor said. “In the United States, a person is innocent until proven guilty. The vast majority of people in jail awaiting trial are folks just like anyone else, who deserve their day in court.”

City officials posted an online request for proposals for a major nonprofit to operate Atlas on Nov. 6. The chosen nonprofit would then contract with 20 to 30 local groups around the city to execute the programs for defendants. Services should be available for people released under the bail reforms by the spring, officials said.