Brooklyn Defenders Challenge Exorbitant Bail

Public defenders plan case-by-case appeals of judges’ routine decisions to jail defendant who can’t afford to pay for release pending trial. They contend that thousands of suspects are jailed unnecessarily for weeks, months, and sometimes years.

Spend even a little time in Brooklyn’s Kings County Criminal Court, and a pattern quickly emerges. An arrested person is brought before a judge to be arraigned. A prosecutor asks the judge to set bail. The judge, without asking whether the defendant can afford the payment, offers him two unworkable choices: Post the full amount of bail or visit to the bail bondsman, an expensive proposition. Most are forced to a third option: Unable to put up the cash, they spend weeks and months—in some cases, years—at the widely condemned Rikers Island jail complex. There, 7,000 inmates—about three-quarters of New York City’s jail population—are convicted of no crime and detained only because they can’t buy their freedom, The Atlantic reports.

Public defenders in Brooklyn are launching an initiative intended to disrupt this pattern. When a judge sets bail that a defendant can’t afford, the Brooklyn Defenders Service will systematically challenge the judge’s order. If that fails, they’ll appeal it. The goal is to repair New York City’s long-criticized bail system by incentivizing judges to focus on bail’s essential purpose: It’s collateral meant to guarantee a criminal defendant’s return to court, not punishment for a person accused of a crime. The initiative is a steady, case-by-case approach to challenging the status quo in the criminal-justice system. Exorbitant bail is the default in many U.S. courts, even though judges aren’t actually required to set it. They can release a defendant pending trial or impose non-monetary conditions for release. Of the 450,000 inmates awaiting trial daily nationwide, nearly all of them were jailed because they can’t make bail. In some jurisdictions, overly harsh statutes are to blame. In others, like New York, norms and practices, not the law, are responsible.