The tragic death of Kalief Browder, a Bronx teen who spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial only to have his case thrown out, sparked national outrage and cries for criminal justice reform in 2015. Browder, whose mental health suffered while in jail, eventually took his own life.
Less than two years later, a similar case emerged. Bronx teenager and honors student Pedro Hernandez spent 13 months at Rikers after he was allegedly involved in a July 2016 shooting. But according to officials, witnesses including the victim have said Hernandez wasn’t the perpetrator.
Hernandez could not afford the $250,000 bail, and he refused to take a plea deal. After a year on Rikers, his bail was lowered to $100,000. The Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, a human rights group, stepped in to pay his bail, allowing him to return home pending trial next month.
Lawmakers and advocates have since called for action to change New York’s bail system.
State Senator Michael Gianaris proposed legislation two years ago that would eliminate the bail system entirely. He joined advocates from the Fortune Society in Long Island City last Wednesday to discuss his bill.
“We’re literally taking lives away from people because they are not rich enough,” Gianaris said. “That is inherently unfair and inherently discriminatory. It has led to a situation in our society that has divided us on the basis of wealth.”
The Queens senator’s bill would give judges three options to cash bail. The first is just releasing the person on their own recognizance until trial, which happens in misdemeanor cases.
The second is supervised release, which would put conditions on the release. The last option is remand, which would apply for the most extreme cases, such as first-degree murder charges.
“This would go a long way towards bringing fairness to communities, towards saving young people’s lives and giving them a chance,” he said.
Gianaris said the history of bail goes back to medieval England, when disputes were mostly financial. Bail is not enshrined in the Constitution, Gianaris said. The only mention has to do with not having excessive bail.
“Why do we make people pay to be out?” he said. “That’s not what this country is about.”
Gianaris noted that bail doesn’t even guarantee return to trial at a greater rate. In other states that have piloted programs based on supervised release, the rate at which the accused have come back to court for their trial is “basically the same,” he said.
“You’re not even achieving anything other than keeping people in jail when they haven’t been found guilty of anything,” he said.
JoAnne Page is the president and CEO of the Fortune Society, which helps rebuild the lives of formerly incarcerated people and runs programs that are an alternative to incarceration. She called Rikers Island a place where you’re “either predator or prey,” and that people who stay there suffer brutal punishment.
By her estimates, more than 80 percent of the Rikers Island population are people who have not been convicted of a crime.
“The coupling of bail that people cannot afford if they’re low-income and long case delays means the punishment precedes the crime,” Page said. “In many cases where people are innocent, there’s only punishment and there is no crime.”
Page said the trauma from being detained affects a person’s ability to hold a job, go to school, keep their housing or be there for their children. Far too many innocent people are also “faced with a terrible choice” with plea deals, she said.
“It is truly and deeply wrong to hold people in a dangerous and violent place who have never been convicted of anything,” Page said, “damaging their lives and damaging their ability to fight their cases.”
Stanley Richards, executive vice president at the Fortune Society, has gone through the process before. He spent much of his early years “cycling in and out of prisons,” which he thought was going to be his life.
His last incarceration took place in the mid-1980s. Richards spent two years awaiting trial at Rikers Island. He was eventually convicted in 1988.
Today, Richards works with formerly incarcerated people to get back on their feet. He’s also a leading figure in the push to close Rikers Island and reform New York’s criminal justice system.
“Bail is about who can afford it, it’s not about innocent or guilty,” he said. “We have been doing so much damage to so many people.”
Richards, who served on the Lippman Commission that proposed the plan to eventually close Rikers, said the population at the jail is currently 9,400. The goal is to cut that population in half, which would allow the city to close Rikers and “have a smaller criminal justice footprint.”
He believes the bill would put the city on a path toward that goal.
“If we were able to enact this legislation, we would be halfway home to being able to close Rikers,” Richards said. “Let’s move forward with this reform. It’s needed, it can save lives.”