When people are arrested for minor crimes, they can usually get out of jail for a few hundred dollars and get back to their lives while awaiting a court date.
But for some, even bail of a few hundred dollars is too high. In the past two years, 46 people each spent at least three weeks in the Schenectady County jail because they could not afford bail of $1,000 or less. In many cases, those inmates eventually pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of time served, just to get out of jail.
Some of them have options; they just don’t want to use them to leave. Frank Taylor, 23, of Schoharie was jailed on $500 bail. He could have called his grandparents for help, but he didn’t.
“I would rather sit in here than call my grandparents,” he said. “It would make me feel worse.”
At first, he wanted to fight his charges, even if it meant sitting in jail. He had been arrested for loitering, but he said he was simply sitting in his parked car. And then at the police station, he was strip-searched, at which point police found a hypodermic needle.
He’s not contesting the needle, but he thought he had a shot at contesting the search.
“I was trying to get off of it because I figured the search was illegal. And loitering in a car? I never heard of that,” he said.
He was released on his own recognizance after that arrest, but when police pulled him over again and asked his name, he panicked.
“I lied about it,” he said. “I gave my girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend’s name. At the station, I told them my name.”
Still, that’s criminal impersonation, and with that charge, he went to jail on $500 bail. His resolve quickly wavered.
“I started getting afraid they would say, ‘You don’t want to take a deal? Then here’s the max,’ ” he said.
His public defender urged him to accept a deal: 45 days, which would mean 30 days with good behavior. He’d already served 11 days.
He realized that if he didn’t take the deal, he would be in jail at least that long while fighting the charges, so he decided to plead guilty to criminal impersonation, a misdemeanor. And he acknowledged reluctantly that he had broken laws.
Others are also spending weeks in the Schenectady County jail on low bail for nonviolent, minor charges. One person sat in jail for 21 days on $100 bail for a trespassing charge, according to jail records. That’s longer than most people are likely to be punished if they are found guilty of the crime.
“Something’s wrong. There is a disconnect,” state Administrative Law Judge Vito Caruso said. “Do these people have an attorney?”
They do. And those attorneys said they argue vehemently for changes in bail, usually to no avail.
It’s hard to make judges understand that $200 can be too much money, said conflict defender Steven Signore, whose county office provides attorneys free of charge to those who can’t afford one.
“It’s hard to put into perspective. You or I might look at $100, $200, and think it’s no big deal. But if you’re indigent or homeless, it is,” he said.
The problem isn’t unique to Schenectady, but Schenectady is trying to resolve the issue. The jail now accepts credit cards to pay bail. And the Center for Community Justice is trying to create an alternative to incarceration that could get people out of jail even if they can’t afford a cent of bail.
Keeping someone in jail is not the purpose of bail. The goal is to make sure the person comes to court for trial, said Schenectady City Court Judge Mark Blanchfield. But those who can’t afford bail quickly give up on trying to prove their innocence, attorneys said.
Steven Kouray, one of many private attorneys who represent some indigent prisoners without charge, said he’s tried hard to get his clients out, but he rarely succeeds.
“They just sit there and rot,” he said, adding that he tells judges to consider his client’s financial situation.
When that fails, he tells his clients to sit tight while he works on their defense. But they almost always accept a plea deal.
“As soon as they hear an offer of time served, they’re going to jump all over it,” he said. “The system has a way of wearing them down. Even though they may be innocent, they’ll plead guilty just to get out, even if they have a defense.”
Kouray urges his clients to refuse such offers because a guilty plea could have lifelong ramifications, especially for those who plead to a felony.
“Every job application you fill out and everything, you’re going to be a convicted felon,” he said. “That’s going to bite you. It has collateral consequences: housing, employment, licensing for professions.”
At the Center for Community Justice, officials are trying to create another option. They’re setting up a community accountability board, which would accept low-level offenders, typically the people who receive low bails. Those people would instead be released to the program, where they would have to pay restitution and make amends in other ways.
Merens doesn’t want people sitting in jail so long that they’re willing to plead guilty just to get out.
“This is a terrible thing that’s going on,” he said. “It happens now for poor, mostly minority men. The middle class would lawyer up, get community service, not get a record. If you’re stuck in jail, the only way out is to plead guilty. We are all well aware that this is an issue.”
The differences are stark between the time spent in jail for those who can pay bail and those who can’t. One inmate who couldn’t pay $200 bail on a charge of possessing drugs spent 64 days in jail before accepting a sentence of time served. The average jail time in Schenectady County over the past two years for a conviction on that charge and bail level: 23 days.
Another spent 33 days in jail on a criminal contempt charge with $750 bail, accepting a plea deal of time served. The average jail time for that charge and bail was 6 days.
But some were eventually released on their own recognizance or to probation. The official term is that bail was “modified” to another form of release. For bail modification, though, they had to wait a long time.
One inmate spent 123 days — about four months — in jail on a charge of criminal contempt. The bail: $500. The inmate was eventually released on probation. On the same charge and the same bail amount, the average stay in the Schenectady County jail was 31 days.
Another inmate spent 103 days in jail on a prostitution charge with $500 bail before being released by the court on her own recognizance, without having to pay bail. The average time for those who could pay bail on that charge was three days.
It costs about $100 a day to keep a prisoner in jail, Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic Dagostino said, “so certainly if we can get people out on low bails, we want to, so we’re not housing them for $100 a day.”
Dagostino’s eager to find ways to get those prisoners out. His staff will give them free phone calls if they think they can arrange bail. When community organizations offered to help loan bail money to indigent prisoners, jail guards would tell prisoners about the programs and help them get through the process.
But those bail funds folded years ago. Now, attorneys try to get judges to waive bail altogether if the client can’t afford anything and is facing minor charges.
Judge Blanchfield said that although he approves many bail modifications, he would not simply release someone because they could not pay a low bail.
“Circumstances of their case change. Sometimes a pending case in another jurisdiction resolves,” he said. “Sometimes the judge wants to give someone a chance to be under the supervision of probation and see how their attendance [in court] is.”
Inmates could be released for pending surgery, to get treatment for substance abuse or because school is about to start and they want to enroll, Blanchfield added. He also said people in his court don’t wait months before their bail is modified.
One of the most common reasons for release is to enter a drug court program, Kouray said. “If someone truly has a substance-abuse problem and doesn’t have a violent crime history, they’ve been very good about releasing them,” he said.
The jail isn’t a pleasant place to wait. Inmates are kept in single cells only as wide as their platform bed. A slight bend in the wall hides the toilet from direct view. Inmates who have any belongings keep them in laundry baskets under their bed.
When the cells are opened, they can sit in a small shared space with two or three other inmates in their group. The space, directly in front of their cells, has picnic tables at which they often play cards.
There’s also one telephone there, which they can use to make collect calls.
That’s where Taylor is spending the month. He admits he was carrying a hypodermic needle when he was searched, but he wishes the legality of the search had been argued in court.
“But the thing is, they still obtained that illegally,” he said of the police. “They can hang out with me for 45 days, and I’ll feel we both got justice for what we did wrong.”
If he had been out on bail, he said, he would have kept fighting. He could’ve earned the money to pay for a private attorney, as well, he said.
He has a job lined up when he gets out later this month. Every summer, he works on a Schoharie farm. By then, he’s hoping this will all be behind him.
And maybe the days in jail will have had an impact.
“I’m done,” he said of getting into future trouble with the law. “I’m going to tell them I’m done. It’s over.”