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NYCLU: Reform cash bail system

NYCLU: Reform cash bail system

Simple release, or release on supervision seen as alternatives to bail in some cases
NYCLU: Reform cash bail system
Photographer: Shutterstock

ALBANY — The rate at which criminal defendants are unable to make bail in Schenectady County is about middle-of-the-road, among seven other counties studied by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The new study looked at the length of detention before trial for a range of offenses, as well as the bail amounts imposed, in each of eight counties. The purpose was to better understand how bail is applied and to help the NYCLU advocate for reforms of the bail system.

In Schenectady County, the study looked at 4,508 cases between 2010 and 2014 and found that 67 percent of those arrested spent one or more days in custody, while 27.7 percent spent seven or more days in custody.

Those numbers compare to 92 percent who spent a day in jail in Westchester County and 55 percent for Niagara County; as well as 57 percent who spent seven days in jail in Westchester County and 20 percent for Orange County.

The NYCLU chose the eight counties in an effort to represent small, medium and large New York counties. In the Capital Region, they also looked at Albany County.

Across the eight, the NYCLU counted more than 90,000 people who spent a day or longer in custody, and 45,000 spent a week or longer.

"Under the law, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but our data shows that cash bail forces tens of thousands of New Yorkers to serve time before they get their day in court," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a prepared statement. "New York legislators need to pass comprehensive bail reform now to ensure no one is punished because they can't pay for their release. Rights shouldn't come with a price tag.

The study comes after Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed several justice reforms in January, including reforms to the bail system.

Cuomo's bail proposal would eliminate monetary bail for those facing misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, replacing it with either simple release or with certain release conditions, like supervision.

The NYCLU report also follows a Daily Gazette report in 2015 that showed, over the previous two years, 46 people spent at least three weeks in the Schenectady County jail because they could not afford bail of $1,000 or less.

The report also looked at the race of those detained, finding that in each of the eight counties, white defendants remained in custody at lower rates than black defendants. Of the eight counties, Schenectady had the second-lowest disparity.

Schenectady County held 150 people for seven days or longer on $250 bail.

Schenectady County Public Defender Stephen Signore has praised the new proposals. Bail issues, he said, can cause real problems for the defense, especially in low-level cases. If a defendant stays in jail long enough, they'll take a deal rather than fight. 

That can happen in prostitution cases for which there might be a defense case to be made, Signore said.

Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said he received the report earlier and circulated it to his staff. He saw the numbers as comparing favorably to the other counties. 

"I think it reflects the fact that, in our county, we have a pretty good system of release for people who can't make low amounts of bail," he said, crediting probation and active defense attorneys.

Of the proposals to eliminate cash bail, Carney said judges still need discretion, especially for repeat domestic violence offenders and those who violate court orders. A proposal to hold hearings early on was seen as practically impossible to do.

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