By Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio
On Tuesday, the New York City Council voted to pass a bill which requires the Department of Correction to inform incarcerated people– and their lawyers–when they are being held on a bail amount of less than $10.
Activists working with incarcerated individuals have long been fighting to find a better way of notifying people when their bails are set so low. Victoria Phillips works as an organizer at the Mental Health Project for the Urban Justice Center, and has seen countless individuals stuck in jail without knowing that their bail price was so low, particularly people at Rikers Island, she said. She met people who were incarcerated for almost seven months without knowing that their bail was set at such a low amount.
“Absolutely no one should be sitting in jail for less than $10,” she said.
And why does this dollar bail system exist? Lawyers say that if a defendant has two pending cases, one with a serious charge and another one with a less serious charge, lawyers can ask for a low bail amount to be posted on the minor case. This way, the time the defendant spent in jail on the minor charge is credited towards the time spent in jail for the serious charge.
Attorneys say that the system is meant to be helpful, but often ends up hurting the incarcerated person if there is a confusion about the bail amount. Sometimes, clients are simply not brought into courtrooms and do not know if the judge reduced their bail, criminal attorney Glenn F. Hardy said. Since things move so quickly in the courtroom, the defendants don’t always catch the exact bail amount, Hardy said. Another common problem, Hardy said, is miscommunication between lawyers and their clients, which can lead to defendants sitting in jail without knowing that their bail was set at such a low amount.
Aitabdel Salem, Hardy’s client, spent almost five months at Rikers Island in 2014 and 2015 without a clue that his bail was just $2, as was first reported by the New York Daily News in 2016.
“He told me that his attorney never told him and the Department of Corrections never told him,” Hardy said of his client’s bail amount.
The bill, which was first introduced in May of 2018 by City Council member Rory Lancman, now has 10 council member sponsors.
“We have heard advocates testify that they’ve received referrals every day for people who are incarcerated solely due to bail that has been set at the amount of $1,” said Keith Powers, chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice. Of the present council members, all three voted yes on the bill. Council member Robert Holden requested that his name be added as a sponsor to the bill.
Though council members at the vote stressed the importance of this bill as a step towards reforming the bail system, some are still skeptical about what the bill represents for larger changes in the criminal justice system.
“We certainly support any law that requires the city to notify people who are incarcerated that they are only being held on nominal bail, this is definitely a positive step,” said Scott Leavy, director of The Bronx Defenders Fundamental Fairness Project. “The fact that it is necessary, however, points to the absurdity of our dollar bail system.”
The bill has now been sent to the Mayor Bill de Blasio’s desk for an official signature.