The key to closing Rikers Island is drastically reducing its population without endangering public safety. Fortunately, we know exactly how to do this, and Councilman Lancman has been leading the way.
Most inmates at Rikers are there awaiting trial; they’re in Rikers because they can’t make bail. Think about that: most people sitting on Rikers Island could walk out the door tomorrow if they could only come up with the money to do so. Indeed, 85% of people who have bail set at $500 cannot make bail at arraignment and are shipped off to Rikers Island.
We need to eliminate cash bail, but, unfortunately, only the state legislature has that power. But we don’t need to wait for Albany to act for us to drastically reduce the cash bail population at Rikers Island on our own.
Let’s release more defendants on their own recognizance, by finally updating our “flight risk assessment” analysis to more accurately measure the likelihood of a defendant making their court appearances; allow more defendants or their family pledge assets other than cash, as already allowed by law, such as a home or other property, or simply by the guarantee of a reliable family member; set bail at amounts that people can actually afford, as an ongoing pilot project run by the Vera Institute for Justice and funded by the New York City Council is currently doing by giving judges and lawyers basic financial information about defendants at arraignment; and expand supervised release, a successful program which subjects defendants to varying levels and conditions of supervision and notification so they can remain free while they await their day in court.
Let’s make it easier to pay bail, by expanding the Bail Expediting Program that gives a defendant’s family extra time at arraignment to come up with bail; create a real online bail payment system that allows people to pay directly from their checking accounts and isn’t loaded with predatory fees; put ATMs in arraignment courtrooms, so people with cash can by actually access it and avoid being sent to Rikers while a family member scrambles to come up with cash; expand nonprofit bail funds for indigent defendants while ensuring their appearance at future court dates; and crack down on unscrupulous bail bond agents, who routinely overcharge for their services, impose prohibited fees, refuse to return collateral as required, and generally game the system to benefit themselves at the expense of families desperate to get their loved ones out of jail.