Kalief Browder spent three years in jail on New York City’s Rikers Island, awaiting a trial that never happened for robbery and assault.
When police charged him for robbery in 2010, the 16-year-old’s family couldn’t afford to pay the $3,000 bail. After three years at Rikers and numerous court delays, prosecutors dropped the charges when the main witness disappeared. Guards and other inmates had abused Browder, who spent months in solitary confinement and attempted suicide multiple times.
“Before I went to jail, I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and, now that I’m aware, I’m paranoid,” he told a New Yorker reporter in 2014. “I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.”
The next year, he hanged himself at home.
Browder’s story spurred reforms to New York’s criminal justice system—including its bail system last year. Recent protests after the death of George Floyd have drawn attention to the topic, as well. Some charity funds received record amounts of donations to bail out arrested protesters. Advocates say reforming the practice could reduce racial disparity in the justice system. Several states have attempted change in recent years, with varying degrees of success.
New York made headlines in 2019 for radical changes in its bail system. One of the biggest: For most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, officers issued tickets ordering defendants to appear in criminal court instead of arresting them. State law enforcement and district attorneys pushed back, warning the reforms would lead to more crime. Lawmakers voted to enact the changes along party lines, with Republicans sharply criticizing the new laws as they took effect.
They pointed out cases like that of Tiffany Harris, whom police in Brooklyn, N.Y., arrested three times in one week and released without bail twice. The first time, she allegedly slapped three Jewish women and shouted profanities at them. The second time, police said she punched a Jewish woman in the face. After she failed to show up for a court-ordered meeting with a social worker, officers arrested her, and she underwent psychiatric testing. On Jan. 7 of this year, a grand jury indicted Harris on three counts of felony assault as a hate crime.
“If she continues to just get arrested and the law does not recognize that she can be held unless she demonstrates persistently that she won’t come back to court, then prosecutors can’t do anything,” criminal defense lawyer Mark Bederow told the New York Post at the time.
Lawmakers voted to walk back some of the reforms in January, restoring judges’ ability to set bail for a sizable list of crimes. The new changes took effect last month.
Derek Cohen, director of the Texas Public Policy Institute’s Right on Crime initiative, said New York’s trouble came from passing a blanket prohibition. Making pretrial detention dependent upon what law a defendant allegedly broke removes a judge’s ability to make individualized decisions.
Other states and counties have tried reform with varying success. In 2018, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a bill to make his state the first to abolish bail, but a coalition of bail bonds agents opposed the measure and forced a referendum. Voters will have their say on the issue in November.
In 2014, New Jersey voters decided to replace cash bail with a risk assessment that measures the likelihood an accused person will run or commit another offense before the court date. A 2019 report found the state was holding 44 percent fewer people pretrial and saw no meaningful increase in failures to appear in court.
Lucas County, Ohio, began using risk assessment tools in 2015, and in 2018 had reduced the pretrial jail population by 24 percent. The changes also reduced the number of people who failed to appear in court. Other states have adopted a combination of risk assessments with the option of bail in some cases.
Bail reform efforts have two goals: easing the burden on local jurisdictions and jails and allowing defendants to be productive while awaiting court outcomes. In March 2020, the Prison Policy Initiative reported that about 75 percent of local jail inmates had no criminal conviction yet. Paying to keep people in jail costs about $85 per person per day, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute. For inmates, jail time could mean losing a job or surrendering a child to foster care. Sometimes even if a person’s family has the money to pay, the complexity of posting bail intimidates them.
Prison Fellowship began focusing on bail reform about four years ago.
“From a Christian perspective, we think justice should not be based on the amount of money you have in your pocket,” said Heather Rice-Minus, the organization’s senior vice president of advocacy and church mobilization. “We should be taking into account public safety and what is actually going to restore communities and people harmed by crime.”