Gotham Gazette Mon, 26 Aug 2019 07:30:05 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) City Council Bail Fund Begins Operations Melissa Mark-Viverito police reform bail

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (photo: @NYCCouncil)

The New York City Council’s bail fund, a signature project of Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, has officially launched operations and is actively taking on cases in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“We had a very soft rollout in June and July,” said Dave Long, executive director of The Liberty Fund, the official name of the fund, which provides bail to low-level offenders facing misdemeanor charges who cannot afford to post bail. The most common misdemeanor charges in Brooklyn, for instance, are for marijuana possession, trespassing, petit larceny, turnstile jumping, low-level drug possession, and driving with a suspended license, according to the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, another charitable bail fund in the city.

The fund began operating in Manhattan on August 7 and in Brooklyn a week later.

Although the fund was announced by Mark-Viverito in her first State of the City address in February 2015, its launch has taken longer than expected, in part delayed by the state’s arduous bureaucratic procedure for approving charitable bail funds and their agents. The Liberty Fund currently has one full-time licensed bail agent and another part-time agent who works for the Doe Fund, the nonprofit that is overseeing its operations.

The fund is awaiting approval for nine other applications, including one for Long himself, which he expects will be approved in the coming weeks, allowing them to launch operations in the Bronx and Queens.

“This is one of the longest processes I’ve seen in all my years,” said Long, an attorney and 30-year veteran of city government, who was hired in March to run the bail fund. “To get someone licensed, it shouldn’t take so long.”

The bail fund is an important part of Mark-Viverito’s legacy and her lengthy criminal justice agenda, and is also key to the long-term plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex.

“No one should be shipped off to Rikers Island simply because they are too poor to post bail,” Mark-Viverito said, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “That’s why the City Council is proud to support the mission of the Liberty Fund as they conduct important work to level the playing field and reduce pre-trial incarceration rates.”

The speaker also touted other initiatives the Council has passed under her leadership, including making bail payments easier; passing the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which created civil penalties for certain low-level crimes; and establishing the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which issued a comprehensive report in April.

Long and his associates have been busy for months, setting up borough offices, hiring employees, and meeting with court staff to make their presence known. “The court staff have been very receptive and very helpful,” he said. “I think we’re a welcome addition to the court process. We’ve done our best to blend in.”

Once fully operational, the fund aims to assist between 1,000 and 2,000 low-level offenders each year who cannot afford to pay bail, which can sometimes be as low as $250. Charitable bails funds, under state law, are only permitted to aid individuals facing misdemeanor charges with bail set below $2000. “We come into play when nobody else can pay bail,” Long said, although insisting that it is a last resort for people who may otherwise end up heading to Rikers Island. “This isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. We’ve said “no” to some cases too.”

The City Council has provided $1.4 million in operational funds for The Liberty Fund while an anonymous private foundation has promised $400,000 for the actual bail payments. That seed funding will help the fund operate for years, Long estimated. Currently, the account holds $20,000, which is a “revolving” figure since 85-90 percent of that funding would return to the account as clients make their appearances in court. Charitable bail funds, of which there are two others operating in the city -- the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund and the Bronx Freedom Fund -- have shown a very high rate of return in terms of clients who make their court appearances.

Beyond keeping clients out of jail, the fund will also provide “wraparound services,” Long said. His staff is comprised of people with experience in court operations and case management, and even a licensed social worker. Together, they create a voluntary social services plan for clients that includes housing, employment, substance abuse and mental health services. “There’s two sides to the coin here,” Long said. “We hope to never have this person return to court again, except for scheduled court appearances.”

“We spent a lot of time preparing for this so we can do it right,” he said.

For certain criminal justice reform advocates, the bail fund is something of a band-aid absent substantive systemic reform. “The city is trying to mitigate a situation that in a just world would not exist,” said Nick Malinowski, civil rights campaigns director at VOCAL-NY, in an email. “Prosecutors and judges should not be permitted to ask for or set bail in amounts that people cannot afford.”

Malinowski wants to see measures for more accountability for the NYPD, district attorneys, and judges, but the idea of the elimination of cash bail for low-level offenders is being discussed by state legislators. In the meantime, the Liberty Fund is seeking to keep more people from entering city jails, missing work, school, and family, and avoiding the snowballing effect that often occurs from even a short jail stay.

Rachel Foran, managing director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, echoed Malinowski’s comments about wanting to see more criminal justice reform from the city. “We see the work of community-funded bail funds like us and others across the state and country as an important, but temporary intervention to prevent the unjust and unnecessary pretrial jailing of people caged purely for the inability to afford bail,” she also said. “We ultimately want to see the elimination of the cash bail system entirely.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council Bail Fund Begins Operations Thu, 17 Aug 2017 18:29:54 +0000
Much Agreement on Need for Bail Reform, But Little Movement de Blasio rikers ponte officers

On Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

There is an ongoing conversation in New York about how to fix the bail system that many agree is broken, keeping too many poor people in jail after they are arrested for low-level nonviolent offenses but cannot afford to post bond and, at times, allowing individuals back onto the street who are prone to violence but able to pay bail. Efforts at reform have been full of fits and starts.

About a month ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced measures to make it easier for people to pay bail through an online payment system, as opposed to the insistence that bail is paid in person. More recently, City Council Member Rory Lancman introduced legislation that would require a city service provider to furnish judges setting bail with details of a defendant’s financial situation.

These latest incremental local reform ideas and others are aimed at chipping away at the problems with the system, but many advocates, legal experts, and elected officials agree that there is a need for an expanded statewide conversation around the culture of bail and actual statutory reform, chiefly to ensure that those with limited material resources are not punished simply for their economic status.

Reforming the bail system in New York has been something of a priority at both the city and state levels, though tangible progress has been limited.

In January, Governor Andrew Cuomo included the issue in his policy agenda for this year, although there has been little follow-up through legislation. Cuomo proposed requiring judges to assess risk to public safety when making a bail decision -- something de Blasio and others are in agreement with -- and stronger regulations of bail bondsman practices.

In New York City, the de Blasio administration has implemented a number of initiatives this year to make bail payments less complicated and to provide alternatives to bail that keep people from being incarcerated. There have also been concerted efforts both in policing practice and through legislation to reduce arrests for low-level offenses in the first place, and arrests are down significantly while the city has become safer in terms of major crimes.

The population at Rikers Island jails, where about three-quarters of the city’s jail population is housed, hovers around 7,500 daily, down significantly from peak years over recent decades.

In April, the mayor committed nearly $18 million for a citywide expansion of a supervised release program that will allow as many as 3,000 low-level offenders each year to remain out of jail and work while they await trial. The program cuts down on the use of monetary bail, ensuring that people who are of low risk to public safety but cannot afford bail do not languish in prison.

Last month, the mayor announced the creation of a system that allows cash bail to be paid online, by a phone, or through a courthouse kiosk by family members and friends of defendants. The system, due to be launched citywide by the spring, aims at alleviating the difficulty of having to physically visit a corrections facility to pay bail. “Nobody with the ability to pay bail should sit in jail just because the bail process is an inconvenience,” de Blasio said at the announcement.

The City Council has also been inching closer to establishing a public bail fund, which was first announced by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in her February 2015 State of the City speech. The fund received a license from the state Department of Financial Services in August but cannot begin operations until a pending license application for a bail bond agent is approved. If it becomes operational, the fund will provide bail money for qualifying participants so that they can leave jail between arrest and court appearance.

Bail reform is a key consideration for the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, a body that was set up at the speaker’s behest earlier this year to recommend broad criminal justice reforms, with an eye toward creating a plan for closing the Rikers Island prison complex. The body is being headed by former New York State chief judge Jonathan Lippman, who, when he filled that role, argued vehemently for bail reform.

Lippman believes that bail reform is moving ahead slowly in the city, but he stressed in a phone interview that there needs to be statutory change in law to effect broad change. “The city is doing really good things but they’re nibbling around the edges, not able to get at the heart of it,” he said. “My belief is that we need cooperation from Albany and we need a new bail statute.”

Lippman suggested a two-fold approach to bail: giving judges the authority to assess risk to public safety and the need to “flip the assumption” that someone should be incarcerated instead of being released while waiting for a court date. “Bail doesn’t assure the person coming back and it’s an anachronism,” he said, promising that the commission will directly address the issue when it releases its recommendations sometime in spring 2017.

Last year, when Lippman was serving as chief judge (he was forced to retire due to age restrictions and is now “of counsel” at Latham & Watkins), he announced administrative measures to reform the bail system in the absence of legislative action by the state. His own proposals from 2013 to essentially do away with cash bail have not been taken up by legislators in Albany, where Republicans control the state Senate and are often opposed to what is seen as progressive criminal justice reform.

“I think we got a lot of attention when I proposed the legislation,” Lippman said, rueing that “getting a lot of attention and getting things done are two different things.”

The challenge to changing the bail statute, he said, is the same that creeps up in any issue of criminal justice reform. “Legislators are elected and get into this soft-on-crime/tough-on-crime syndrome,” he said. “I think we need to be smart on crime.”

A major impetus to the conversation around bail reform was the tragic death of Kalief Browder, a young Bronx resident who spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial on charges of stealing a backpack. Browder couldn’t pay bail but was eventually released when the case was dismissed. In jail, he faced physical and mental abuse and was placed in solitary confinement for nearly two years. In June 2015, Browder committed suicide.

The case prompted widespread outrage and besides putting a spotlight on the culture of violence at Rikers, it highlighted the problems in the bail system. Advocates use Browder’s experience as a rallying cry in their push for change.

While there’s a lot of agreement that an update of the legal statutes is necessary, there’s a greater need, many say, for reexamining the purpose of the bail mechanism and reeducation in how it is practiced.

“Bail, by definition, discriminates against the poor,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris, deputy Democratic Conference leader, who proposed a bill last year to scrap cash bail. “There’s no rational basis for continuing this process.”

Gianaris, of Queens, believes that reform is being slowed by a misunderstanding of the issue. “Bail was never intended to keep dangerous people off the street,” he said, pointing out that defendants have a constitutional presumption of innocence and cannot be considered dangerous for the purposes of bail if they haven’t been convicted yet.”

Ezra Ritchin, project director of the Bronx Freedom Fund, one of two charitable bail funds already operating in New York City, commends the mayor and the City Council for the steps they’ve taken and says there is an urgency around bail reform at the state level.

“We’re in an important moment right now where there’s a lot of change happening,” he said. “Since Kalief Browder...there has been momentum for reform.”

But Ritchin warned, “There are things that we are missing in all of this.” The root of the issue, he said, is the high volume of arrests in New York City, and the consideration that a defendant is likely to miss their court date. “It’s often labeled as flight-risk,” he said. “That’s a massive misunderstanding of what’s going on. No one is fleeing.”

“It’s a question of the way that we frame risk,” Ritchin said, referring to the chances that a person might flee or even be a risk to public safety, which is a consideration that both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have proposed as an addition to the bail statute. “What we don’t talk about,” Ritchin said, “is the risk of a person’s life falling apart from being wrenched into the system.”

Therein lies the biggest issue for Ritchin, the way the bail statute is put into practice. The current statute allows nine different forms of bail, including cash bail, that a judge can impose, some of which are less onerous.

“I think the statute, if used correctly, could result in a very different system than the one we see now,” Ritchin said. This “golden question” of how to change the culture of imposing bail, among prosecutors and judges, is one for which Ritchin said he has no clear answer.

City Council Member Lancman echoed that sentiment. As the chair of the Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services, Lancman is at the frontline of this issue. “The major obstacle is the unwillingness of judges and prosecutors to accept other forms of assurances for a defendant...than cash bail or bond, as well as the unwillingness to look at each defendant’s financial circumstances,” Lancman told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview. “The system in every way possible -- from the city side, the judiciary side, the district attorney’s side, and, to a lesser extent, from the defense’s side -- is not focused on eliminating this reality of people being sent to Rikers Island because they’re poor.”

Under the bill Lancman introduced November 29, an arraignment screening organization contracted by the city to provide details about a defendant, including a recommendation on their risk of flight, would also have to include information on a defendant’s ability to pay bail. This is just one of the few ways the city can change how the bail system works, Lancman said, stressing the need for action at multiple levels. “The effort to reform bail requires many stakeholders adopting the new procedures and policies and outlook, which cumulatively would have an effect of greatly reducing the number of people on Rikers Island because they’re poor,” he said. 

The understanding that cash bail is a misguided concept has taken hold in an unprecedented way at the city and state level, according to Insha Rahman, senior planner at the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice. Less than a decade ago, “it wasn’t a part of the rhetoric and conversation around bail as it is now,” Rahman said. 

She insisted that any legislative proposal, such as one that would consider adding public safety as a consideration, should be informed by data obtained through a statewide survey. “The push needs to be to understand the problems with the use of bail statewide to avoid unintended consequences in places where it’s being used effectively as opposed to ineffectively,” she added, pointing out that different counties employ different practices and that the system is far from a monolith even within New York City’s five boroughs.

There is no cash bail in Washington D.C., where defendants are only detained if they are considered a risk to public safety. It’s considered a model by many advocates of bail reform in New York. But, as Rahman argued, adding risk as a consideration in setting bail could create problems if not studied carefully. “Any change to that is basically change in the sorting mechanism of who stays in and who is released,” she said.

Judge Lippman supports the idea of factoring public risk. So do Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, and they have been criticized for it. The proposal has also held up reform at the state level as different stakeholders struggle to find middle ground. Advocates and legal experts fear that it could deprive defendants of their rights and further institutionalize racism in the judicial system.

Cuomo has not changed his stance since he first included it in his 2016 agenda, according to his office. “The Governor continues to champion comprehensive criminal justice reform, including changes to the state’s antiquated bail system,” said Abbey Fashouer, a spokesperson for the governor, in a statement. “New York is one of only four states in the nation that does not currently take into account public safety risks when making bail and release decisions – and it’s past time to develop a new approach.”

The mayor recently doubled down on his support for the proposal. During a November 7 appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall, de Blasio spoke of the need for bail reform in the context of the fatal shooting of NYPD Sergeant Paul Tuozzolo in the Bronx just three days prior. Tuozzolo was shot and killed by a man who was out on bail and suffered from mental health problems. It was reminiscent of the October 2015 killing of NYPD Officer Randolph Holder, which the mayor referenced in the interview as well. Holder was killed in East Harlem while pursuing an armed suspect who had earlier been sentenced to a treatment program by a drug court rather than being sent to jail.

“This is a reminder that we need bail reform in the State of New York,” de Blasio told NY1 anchor Errol Louis of Tuozzolo’s murder. “We need to include the question of how dangerous a criminal is in the bail decision because there are times when someone is not – a criminal is not a flight risk, but they are a threat to the community, or they have a profound mental health challenge that needs to be addressed. These issues have to be taken into account and we need a state law that recognizes that bail – judges should have the opportunity to consider the dangerousness of the individual when making a bail decision.”

Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, said, as others did, that, “The fundamental problem with how bail operates is that it cages presumptively innocent people for their inability to come up with a certain amount of money.” He warns that replacing it with a system that assesses public safety might ignore that presumption as well.

“There’s a risk that  a system that replaces it will exacerbate existing racial and socioeconomic inequalities,” Goldberg said. “And in any system that looks to judge a person’s dangerousness merely based on the accusation of a crime, the data being used to create that system needs to be made available to the public, to be vigorously validated, but the bedrock principle needs to be the presumption of release.”

As 2017 approaches and with it the next budget and legislative agendas for state legislators and the governor, there’s widespread optimism that bail reform will be a priority. Judge Lippman believes the issue has gestated long enough. “That digestive process has already taken place and it’s time to pick it up and run with it,” he said, confident that his commission’s recommendations will be bold and “out of the box” and will not be politically constrained. “Because of the credibility of the commission, because of the depth of the public official is going to be able to fuzz around these issues,” he said. “That releases some of the political pressure.”

Senator Gianaris is bullish on bail reform as well. “We’ve seen enough injustice,” he said, “that the time has come to take a comprehensive look at this and get rid of bail once and for all.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Much Agreement on Need for Bail Reform, But Little Movement Thu, 08 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Bail Fund Continues Slow Path to Reality MMV hearing pencil

Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo via flickr)

The City Council’s long-awaited public bail fund, a project spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, is one step closer to being operational after receiving another required approval from state authorities.  

Mark-Viverito announced the plan to create a $1.4 million citywide bail fund in February 2015, during her first State of the City address. She called it a crucial element in her larger agenda of criminal justice reform, which now includes several other elements, such as the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which reduced penalties for many low-level, nonviolent offenses.

But the bail fund has been mired in bureaucratic process for some time, and its launch does not appear to be something that the speaker and her partners in the effort have made an urgent priority, despite the fact that the city’s bail system is widely acknowledged as broken. The problems with the bail system prompted Mark-Viverito’s bail fund initiative and elements of the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which helps avoid arrests in the first place.

The Liberty Fund, as it is called, aims to assist low-level offenders who cannot afford bail, at times as low as $250, and would otherwise be incarcerated awaiting trial. It would mirror other bail funds that are running in the city, and will be overseen by the Doe Fund, a nonprofit that provides assistance to homeless people.

"[I]f you can't afford bail you will spend on average 15 days in jail," Mark-Viverito said in the 2015 speech. "The results are predictable: people lose their jobs, or their housing, and cannot take care of their children while they are in custody. These are people who are accused of minor offenses and are still considered innocent in the eyes of the law. This is not justice."

More than a year later, in March 2016, the fund was recognized as a charity by the Attorney General’s office. After other steps in the lengthy procedure involving multiple levels of state approval, the fund received a license to run as a charitable bail bond operation on August 12, according to a spokesperson for the state Department of Financial Services, which authorizes such funds. The speaker’s staff told Gotham Gazette that same month that the fund is expected to provide assistance to about 1,000 people annually, and they hope to reach as many as 2,000 each year. Under state law, a charitable bail fund can only pay bail for an individual charged with a misdemeanor whose bail is set below $2,000.

According to the DFS spokesperson, the fund now has to to obtain a license for an individual to act as a bail bond agent. The spokesperson said that they received an application and a letter from the City Council on November 23 asking to approve the license. The individual will have to be vetted and interviewed before receiving the license, although the spokesperson could not say how long that process would take.

Two other bail funds currently operate in New York City -- The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund and The Bronx Freedom Fund. Both funds report that about 95 percent of their clients, who would otherwise have been unable to afford bail, return to court. The city-funded Independent Budget Office found in 2011 that on an average day, 49 percent of pre-trial detainees were jailed because they could not pay bail and that the annual cost to the city for housing all pre-trial detainees who were unable to pay bail was around $125 million.

The Council’s bail fund aims to prevent thousands of such defendants from spending time in jail, cutting down both on the prison population and the associated costs of incarceration, as well as the personal costs to the individuals. “Our Citywide Bail Fund will make our criminal justice system more fair by ensuring low-income New Yorkers accused of low-level offenses aren’t forced to languish in jail while awaiting trial,” said Robin Levine, a City Council spokesperson, in an email. “We are in active conversations with our partners and will be announcing next steps soon.”

Once the fund is established, that licensed bail bond agent will begin offering qualified candidates the cash to post bail, with the agreement that the participant will show up for his or her court date. The city’s budget for Fiscal Year 2016, which ended June 30 2016, included $1.4 million for the bail fund, which was unused. The same amount was included in the Fiscal 2017 budget as well.

At this point, the launch of The Liberty Fund could coincide with Mark-Viverito’s next, and final, State of the City address, in February. Mark-Viverito is term-limited out of office at the end of 2017.

“It is a time consuming process for an organization to be charitable bail fund organization,” said Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. Goldberg said his organization received its license in about a year-and-a-half, which is similar to the timeline for the Council’s fund so far. For the Brooklyn fund’s individual bail bond agents, Goldberg said it took about three months to be licensed by the state.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council Bail Fund Continues Slow Path to Reality Fri, 02 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Current Providers Welcome Addition of Coming City Bail Fund MMV council pre stated

Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and Council members (photo: William Alatriste)

Last year, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office began seeking state approval for a public bail fund to keep poor low-level offenders out of jail, with Mark-Viverito citing the costs even a short jail stay can have on both lives and city funds. Now, after almost a year-and-a-half, the convoluted process of establishing the bail fund as a charity and obtaining a state license to run it appears to be nearing an end.

Mark-Viverito touted the program in her first State of the City address as Speaker, in February 2015.

"[I]f you can't afford bail you will spend on average 15 days in jail," said Mark-Viverito in her speech, given Feb. 11 from a public housing facility in East Harlem. "The results are predictable: people lose their jobs, or their housing, and cannot take care of their children while they are in custody. These are people who are accused of minor offenses and are still considered innocent in the eyes of the law. This is not justice."

The city’s recently-passed fiscal year 2017 budget includes $1.4 million for The Liberty Fund, to cover operation and administration. The same amount was included in the previous year’s budget, but not used.

For many criminal justice advocates, Mark-Viverito, and her team, the bail fund is a key program in a larger push for criminal justice reform. It goes hand-in-hand, they say, with a variety of other efforts spurred by either the Council or the de Blasio administration: a commission chaired by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman that is looking at closing Rikers Island; reforms to the city’s summons system and reduced penalties for low-level nonviolent offenses (see the Council’s Criminal Justice Reform Act); increased diversionary sentencing; and reductions in the number of arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“From passing expansive summons reform to creating a citywide bail fund to instituting a Commission to tackle injustice on Rikers Island, the New York City Council is committed to commonsense reforms that will bring more justice and proportionality to our criminal justice system,” Mark-Viverito said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “Across the nation, cities and states are engaged in a much-needed conversation about how we approach criminal justice as a country. New York City is at the forefront of these debates, and we are unafraid to lead,” she said.

Some criminal justice reformers view bail funds as “band-aids” that don’t actually address what they see as the core problem: charging too many people with jailable offenses. They worry bail funds could actually prevent action on larger reforms.

The city bail fund would establish a set of criteria for whom bail would be covered. State law that allows bail funds - there are already other funds operable but none at the scale of the City Council’s - restricts such funds to paying in misdemeanor cases where bail is less than $2,000. Members of Mark-Viverito’s staff say they expect the Council-aligned fund will be able to cover bail for 1,000 individuals each year and hope to reach as high as 2,000 annually.

State law allows judges to set bail as an incentive for individuals charged with a crime to return for their court dates. But many poor individuals can’t pay and are forced to sit in jail waiting for trial - an outcome that forces the city to spend money for intake costs like transportation, beds, medical exams, and meals.

According to a 2011 report from the Independent Budget Office, almost 40 percent of the city's then-12,000-member jail population was pretrial detainees who couldn't afford bail. The IBO estimated the cost of holding those alleged offenders at $125 million. The city’s jail population has continued a decades-long decline and is around 10,000 now, with about three-quarters of those detainees at Riker’s Island jail complex.

The city has two other bail funds at the moment: The Bronx Freedom Fund and The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. The organizations see over 95 percent of the people they serve return for all their court dates, a number far higher than for people who actually pay bail on their own.

“The people we bail out have zero financial incentive to return,” said Ezra Ritchin of The Bronx Freedom Fund. “You would imagine if the law was executed correctly people wouldn't be coming back in droves,” Ritchin said, referring to the idea that what brings defendants back to court is the bail they put up. “But that is not the case, we get a 96 percent return and all we’re doing is calling people to remind them of their court dates - sending texts, letters, and calls letting them know where they have to be.”

Despite the success they’ve had with bail funds, Ritchin and his colleagues at both funds don’t totally disagree with the idea that bail funds are short-term, sub-ideal measures. “Band-aids are helpful tools for people who have cuts,” said Ritchin. The lives of the people they serve, he said, “would unravel if they weren't bailed out. It’s good to have a high-level view of policy change, but we can also help people. Hopefully bail funds do set the groundwork for policy change so that bail funds don't have to exist.”

Peter Goldberg, executive director of The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, said it is his hope that bail funds will act as a “stop-gap” effort while drawing attention to larger necessary reforms. “We shouldn’t be asking for money for bail from people who can’t afford it. We need to increase diversion services.”

As far as the impact the city’s other criminal justice reforms are having, Ritchin and other bail fund representatives say they have not witnessed a major reduction in clients having been arrested for minor offenses like violating open container laws or possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“Last year there were a quarter-million misdemeanor arrests in New York City,” said Goldberg “We are making additional progress in that area, but if we want to reduce the number of people we are incarcerating for short periods of times it will really require taking a look at if that number of arrests is appropriate.”

A member of Mark-Viverito’s team said that ideally people committing minor offenses would not be sent to jail at all, but that change is up to the state.

“New York City is taking aggressive steps to ensure that people who can safely await trial in their communities are able to do so,” said Monica Klein, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, when asked about the city’s bail reform efforts. “By enrolling over 1,000 New Yorkers in our supervised release program to-date, the City has avoided the money bail system for these individuals.”

City officials point to statistics showing that summonses and arrests for low-level offenses are less frequent than they have been in decades and that 2015 saw the lowest number of criminal summonses since 1997.

They also say they as the Criminal Justice Reform Act is implemented they expect jail populations to further decline, given that police officers will be encouraged to issue civil summonses over criminal ones and defendants found guilty of some crimes will be allowed to complete community service rather than pay a fine.

Both Ritchin and Goldberg stressed that they are unable to meet the overwhelming demand for their services and that they welcome the city’s bail fund.

With the need so great, it may be a wonder to some why it has taken so long to get it up and running. Earlier this year, Mark-Viverito told Gotham Gazette that the bail fund as moving through the approval process at a slow pace because of state bureaucracy.

The state only began licensing bail funds in 2012. Before then they were operating in a legal grey area. Ritchin and Goldberg say they understand why the city’s fund has taken so long to get licensed. From their experience the licensing process is protracted, frustrating, and perhaps not completely logical.

Gotham Gazette has periodically checked in on the process involving the speaker’s office and state regulators. Those check-ins showed the name, The Liberty Fund; that it is being overseen by The Doe Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless people; and that it was officially recognized as a charity by the Attorney General’s office in March. Since then there has been a bumpy back-and-forth application process with the state’s Department of Financial Services, which licenses charitable bail funds.

DFS representatives have told Gotham Gazette that they waited at least a month for relevant information after requesting it from the applicants. Gotham Gazette was told on Tuesday by a DFS official that the process is likely to last a few more weeks.

The city bail fund will be the first of its size in the state, available to people city-wide.

Ritchin was involved in helping the Brooklyn fund secure its license while writing a guide for other funds to get licensed. He said the process was rocky despite his past experience and that bureaucracy in general would cause some delay, but, “It’s not just that it takes so long but that a lot of the requirements just shouldn’t exist,” Ritchin said.

“Charitable funds face all the requirements of a for-profit business,” Ritchin said, noting that part of the process involves licensing bondsmen and making sure the fund will take absorbetent fees. Charitable funds naturally do not take fees and do not act as bondsmen. Bondsmen require clients put up a fraction of their bail and then promise the court they will cover the full bail should a client fail to make it to court. Charitable bail funds simply pay the bail. If a client doesn’t show the court keeps that money, just as if a client had paid bail themselves and then did not show up.

However, bail funds put a different system in place to help ensure that clients make their court appearances. (New York City is also moving forward with its own reforms to make sure more people know about their court dates when given criminal summonses.)

Goldberg was a corporate attorney out of powerhouse firm Cleary Gottlieb when he began working with the Brooklyn bail fund. “I very much understand why it has taken them awhile,” Goldberg said of the City Council fund. “We had tremendous support forming our fund and yet it took us around two-and-a-half years before we could pay our first bail,” Goldberg explained.

“We cannot charge and never would charge anyone for our services, which you would think obviates the concerns you might have in licensing commercial bail bondsmen,” said Goldberg. “You are dealing with an incredibly vulnerable population in court so it needs to be highly regulated, but if no money is ever going to be charged and no profit secured it is not easy to understand why the process is the same for charity funds as for-profit bondsmen.”

State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, successfully advocated for licensing of bail funds after a judge ordered the Bronx Fund to stop issuing bail because he said it operated in a legal grey area. Rivera told Gotham Gazette earlier this year that he would love to revisit the law and that he has been working with the Department of Financial Services to streamline the process since it became law.

Ritchin said he believes that hitting the City Council goal of paying bail for at least 1,000 clients a year would make a big difference. However, he said “It’s a big problem: 45,000 people are held on bail every year. But [the city fund] may be able to make a big difference in something like reducing the temporary population at Rikers, it could lead to shutting down Rikers.”

Goldberg says he’s spoken to representatives of the Mayor’s Office and the DOE Fund about the bail fund and he welcomes it. “I am happy the city is taking on part of this problem,” said Goldberg, who acknowledged that even with the city fund fully operational there will still be more demand for bail services than all of the funds combined can handle.

The fund should continue to fuel the discussion about criminal justice reform, Goldberg said. “We very much view this as a necessary intervention. Bail funds do important work but I don't view this as the ultimate solution,” he said. “We are quite cognizant of that, and we hope the city will continue to use resources to diminish the number of people entering the system on the front end.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Current Providers Welcome Addition of Coming City Bail Fund Sun, 31 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000
7 Points of Contention as City Budget Deal Finalized BdB MMV RI

Mayor de Blasio & Speaker Mark-Viverito talk (photo: William Alatriste)

“This year we're fighting for much-needed funds that will get #NYC 6-day library service citywide, more police, better parks & much more,” tweeted City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer on Monday morning.

Van Bramer, who chairs the Council’s cultural affairs committee, where the debate over library funding has largely been heard, reminded of the Council’s budget priorities as final negotiations take place between the 51-member legislative body and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio. A deal on a fiscal year 2016 budget is due by July 1, when the new city fiscal year begins. Many expect a deal to be announced this week - last year, the first as mayor for de Blasio and as speaker of the Council for Melissa Mark-Viverito, a budget deal was announced on June 19.

Van Bramer and colleague Council Members Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the public safety committee, and Mark Levine, chair of the parks committee, were on NY1’s Inside City Hall on Friday discussing the final stages of budget negotiations.

“Obviously it is a very inclusive and collaborative process, but at the end of the day the mayor and the speaker will conclude with a deal that reflects the work we’ve been doing as a body over the past several weeks and months,” Van Bramer said.

After de Blasio released his executive budget on May 7, council members have continued to push for an increase in funds for libraries, parks, NYPD headcount, senior citizen services, women’s health services, city-funded school lunches for all students, and more. One other high-profile funding question is whether de Blasio will put money toward a city bail fund, as proposed by Mark-Viverito.

In response to the proposed executive budget, Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras and Mark-Viverito released a joint statement in May praising the budget’s strong capital investment and increased funding toward mental health programs, public housing, and after-school programs for students. But they also chastised the lack of investment in policing and universal school lunch.

“The City Council is disappointed that the Executive Budget does not contain funding for new Police Officers who will help give Commissioner Bratton the tools he needs to continue to keep crime low while also improving police-community relations. The Council was also disappointed to see the Executive Budget does not expand funding for universal free school lunches and breakfast after the bell,” the statement says. “The Council will continue to advocate for these priorities moving forward.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the sides are closing in on a deal to expand the NYPD force by several hundred and that an announcement on that and the rest of the budget could be as early as Monday night. As a city budget deal approaches, a look at several key issues being negotiated:

NYPD Headcount
For a second straight year Mayor de Blasio declined to include money in his budget to hire 1,000 new police officers per the Council’s request, led by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. De Blasio said in May that the NYPD is doing an “outstanding” job as it is and that because officers are spending less time on unnecessary stop and frisks and low-level marijuana arrests, they are freed up to do more of the community policing Council members are seeking the additonal headcount to perform.

Mark-Viverito has since continued to push for additional officers. The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday night that the de Blasio administration will likely expand the size of the police force in exchange for capping overtime for officers.

City Bail Fund
In her February State of the City address, Mark-Viverito proposed a $1.4 million city-wide bail fund to assist low level, non-violent offenders who are unable to make bail. De Blasio declined to provide money for the bail fund in his executive budget.

However, less than a month later, de Blasio endorsed “some sort of bail reform” following the suicide of Kalief Browder, who was detained at Rikers Island for three years before he stood trial and his charges— that of stealing a backpack— were dismissed.

After delivering a statement at an oversight hearing on bail reform last week, Mark-Viverito told reporters that the council could “get [the bail fund] done without the administration’s support.”

On Thursday, de Blasio was asked about Mark-Viverito’s assertion and said, “we’re in a budget discussion and all items are being discussed. I believe in the need for bail reform, and there’s several different ways to do that.” He said that city leaders “don’t want to see people going to jail simply because they can’t afford a small amount of bail for a minor offense,” but said that “there’s more than one way to address that issue” and that he is “particularly focused on...some of the efforts to have a supervised release effort for very low-level crimes that we’ve seen done effectively before.”

Universal Free School Lunch
Council members and Public Advocate Letitia James are pushing de Blasio to provide funding to pay for universal free lunch for all public school students in the city. De Blasio has pushed back on that proposal, arguing that the pilot program his administration funded last year that provided free lunch to all middle schoolers has yielded “mixed results.” Advocates for the program continue to push de Blasio to add funding.

Library Funding
Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer has requested an additional $65 million for libraries, arguing that the need for library services is growing and that funding is below levels of several years ago. The executive budget includes $314 million. The de Blasio administration has also committed to a $300 million ten-year capital budget for libraries, an act representatives call “unprecedented.”

Senior Services
After the administration asked the Department of Aging to cut its budget by $3.1 million, Council Member Margaret Chin has requested an additional $11.5 million for senior services. The budget originally provided $2.6 million, then later added another $2 million to fund elder abuse programs.

Women’s Health Services
The Council Women’s Caucus, led by Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, has called on City Hall to support the Women’s Health Initiative— nearly $4 million baselined during the Bloomberg administration for groups that support women’s health services, including Planned Parenthood, That money is not included in de Blasio’s executive budget, though an administration source has said that the funding will be in the adopted budget after being reappropriated. Crowley, other Council members, advocates and service providers rallied at City Hall last week.

Parks Funding
The proposed budget includes $1.27 billion for parks, an overall increase of $50 million in spending. But some park advocates and Council members, including Mark Levine, are asking the mayor to invest more in parkland and to add $8.7 million for gardeners and maintenance workers, the New York Times reported.

“The parks budget has been stagnating for years. We only devote about one half of one percent of the city’s total budget for parks, it was triple that in the sixties,” Levine said Friday on NY1. “And you see it in our park system today…For parks in low- and moderate-income communities, they need robust public investment in their park system, which they’re not currently getting.”

When de Blasio unveiled his $78.3 billion executive budget on May 7, he touted investments in affordable housing, struggling schools, and fighting homelessness, while firmly rejecting the Council’s call to to hire additional police officers. However, it appears he may give way and expand NYPD headcount and perhaps a handful of other Council requests as negotiations continue, especially as the city’s tax revenues continue to increase. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said earlier this month that the city would end its 2015 fiscal year with a $3 billion surplus. The mayor and Council must come to an agreement by June 30.

by Catie Edmondson and Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson @tweetBenMax

7 Points of Contention as City Budget Deal Finalized Mon, 22 Jun 2015 17:21:23 +0000