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Chief judge announces judicial steps to reform bail

Jonathan Lippman

Jonathan Lippman

The state’s chief judge on Thursday announced a series of steps the judiciary will soon take to speed up trials in New York City and reduce the number of people waiting behind bars before trial because they can’t afford bail.

Those efforts will include appointing a justice in each of the five boroughs to review bail conditions set during rushed arraignments; requiring periodic status conferences in felony cases to review bail conditions and to determine a prosecutor’s readiness for trial; a pilot electronic monitoring system for some defendants in Manhattan; and encouraging judges to use other types of bonds besides cash.

“Defendants who are unable to post bail serve a sentence before their cases are ever resolved,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said at a breakfast sponsored by the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. “They do so regardless of innocence or guilt. And the harm that this injustice causes is intolerable.”

Unlike most states, New York requires judges consider defendants’ risk of flight in determining bail, not their risk to public safety, and money bail is intended to keep people from skipping town and court dates. But advocates and others have long complained the practice punishes the poor charged with minor crimes who can lose jobs, public assistance and housing while jailed.

Two years ago, Judge Lippman proposed legislation to change that, which has languished in Albany. State Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Democrat, announced this week he would introduce legislation to give judges more authority to remand serious offenders to jail while ordering supervised release for others.

In New York City, about 50,000 people are jailed because they can’t make bail every year, state data show. Nearly 90 percent of people ordered bail at arraignment aren’t able to pay it and more than half of them stay in jail until their trials, sometimes years later, Judge Lippman said.

In announcing the judicial reforms, Judge Lippman invoked the June suicide of Kalief Browder, who was 16 years old when he was arrested in the Bronx on suspicion of stealing a backpack and spent three years on Rikers Island before prosecutors dropped their case against him. His bail was set at $3,000.

“These heartbreaking and deeply frustrating events exemplify much of what is wrong with our criminal justice system in New York,” Judge Lippman said.

Browder’s attorney, Paul Prestia, said Judge Lippman’s mandates were a smart way to allow judges more discretion when it comes to bail.

“Unfortunately it took Kalief’s death for such a complete plan to be produced but it really just adds to his legacy,” he said. “Hopefully it makes the criminal justice system in New York City more just.”

Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, who has announced an electronic monitoring system for 16- and 17-year-old defendants, said he applauded Judge Lippman’s efforts, though he noted more judges would be critical to speed cases through the court system.

“We have to have a trial system that gets cases to trial,” he said.