The great bail bailout

Thousands of defendants languish in jail before trial simply because they are unable to afford bail — and counties around New York spend substantial sums jailing them. In 2010, it cost New York City alone $125 million to hold more than 47,000 pre-trial defendants who could not afford bail.

Thousands of New York City inmates await trial in jail only because they cannot afford bail. There are alternatives, but the question remains: Who will pay? Photo: Jeff Morganteen

The state’s chief judge wants to change this system, making it both more humane and less expensive. During his annual speech on the state of New York’s judicial system, Judge Jonathan Lippman unveiled a new vision for pre-trial justice in New York, one that he says can reduce public spending and the number of criminal defendants who stay in jail before their trials simply because they can’t buy their release.

“There is enormous potential savings if we can figure out how to safely and responsibly keep nonviolent defendants in the community while their cases are pending,” said the top judge. He urged investment in supervised release programs and consider nonprofit bail funds as alternatives to the traditional bail bond business.

But Lippman is up against a serious political challenge: motivating counties to invest in the transformation of pretrial detention, spending money now in order to save it down the road.

The recently passed state budget contains no funds to advance bail reform. And among the state’s dozens of counties, which fund and operate jails, only a few so far have established pretrial service programs.

Monroe and Dutchess counties, for example, offer pretrial services to defendants outside of jail, as they await trial. Most other counties lack any such programs. If they proceed, they will have to wrest funding from soliciting state entities, local probation departments, private foundations or nonprofit organizations, as well as taxpayers.

“You’re not going to see everyone jump to the gun and start this stuff,” said Peter Kiers, chief of operations for the Criminal Justice Agency in New York City. “It’s economics. How do you do it? Who’s going to do it?”

Usually, said Kiers, counties look to a few demonstration programs to see what works and then begin replicating them.

Supervised release, one of the more commonly used models, is currently being tested in New York City by the nonprofit Criminal Justice Agency, which is working with defendants in Queens. The program, funded by the city at $3.5 million this year, monitors nonviolent felony defendants and provides them with access to services while making sure they show up to court.

In 2012, the Queens pilot served just 365 pretrial defendants. This year, it’s scheduled to expand to Manhattan, and, the agency expects to serve 500 defendants annually.

Yet such investments don’t readily pay for themselves, because bringing down corrections budgets isn’t as simple as removing a few defendants and seeing savings. Many of a jail’s costs — such as heating, electricity, and staff — remain the same unless it sees a significant reduction in inmates. Spending doesn’t decrease significantly until entire housing areas of a jail are cleared.

The New York City Independent Budget Office broke down the numbers: removing one inmate saves just $12.65 a day, while removing 100 saves more than five times as much per inmate.

Another leading alternative to jail, nonprofit funds that lend bail, is similarly limited in scale.

A new state law allows nonprofit organizations to make loans of up to $2,000 to cover bail for defendants accused of misdemeanors. Two organizations in the city, Bronx Defenders and Brooklyn Defender Services, are stepping up to the task, each expecting to serve several hundred defendants each year. It isn’t the Bronx group’s first attempt: its Freedom Fund paid bail for 150 defendants between 2007 and 2009, before a judge shut it down for operating as an uninsured bail bond business. Of those who borrowed money for bail, 93 percent showed up for their court dates.

Judge Lippman has cast bail reform in terms politicians understand — in dollars and cents. He pointed out in his speech that nationally, supervised release programs spend an average of $4,000 to hold someone. It costs $19,000 to keep someone in jail for the same period of time, Judge Lippman noted.

“You do the math,” he said.

But as a startup, the city’s program so far has cost considerably more. And while there’s consensus that effective pretrial release programs can help defendants, their potential as money-savers has yet to be tested in New York.

“These programs are considered pilots,” noted Timothy Murray, the director of the Pretrial Institute of Justice, a research group based in Washington, D.C. “There isn’t an expectation they’ll put a dent in detention costs.”

Data Tools


Our work has appeared in…

About TNYW

The New York World focuses on producing data-driven investigative projects.