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December 3, 2010

Misdemeanor defendants in NYC left in jail (and perhaps pleading guilty) when unable to make small bail

Though misdemeanor crimes and sentencing rarely make headlined, this notable new article in the New York Times highlights how many are impacted in one city by how such cases get processed.  The piece is headlined "N.Y.C. Misdemeanor Defendants Lack Bail Money," and here is how it starts:

Thousands of people arrested on low-level crimes in New York City spend days languishing in jail, not because they have been found guilty but because they are too poor to post bail, according to a report to be released on Friday.

The report, which examines the bail conditions for people charged with nonfelonies like smoking marijuana in public, jumping a subway turnstile or shoplifting, found that the overwhelming majority of defendants in cases in which bail was set at $1,000 or less were unable to pay and were sent to jail, where they remained, on average, for more than two weeks.  The report comes as the number of arrests for low-level misdemeanors, often referred to as quality-of-life crimes, is rising.

Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group that most often focuses on abuses abroad, obtained data on nonfelony defendants arrested in the city in 2008.  In more than three-quarters of the 117,064 cases, defendants were released on their own recognizance.

In 19,137 cases from that year, bail was set at $1,000 or less.  The report found that 87 percent of the defendants in those cases did not post bail and went to jail to await trial. They remained for an average of 15.7 days.

“Here we are locking people up for want of a couple of hundred dollars,” said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel with the domestic program of the advocacy group. “Pretrial liberty should not be conditioned on the size of your bank account,” Ms. Fellner said.

The report raised the possibility that many of the poorer defendants pleaded guilty at arraignment for sentences with no jail time, simply to avoid being behind bars while awaiting trial.  “The client is placed with a choice of staying out of jail and being on Rikers Island and fighting their case,” said Robin Steinberg, the director of the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit group that provides legal representation to Bronx residents charged with crimes.  “Almost anybody would plead guilty.  It creates a pressure on poor people in the criminal justice system for them to plead guilty without regard to whether they were guilty or not guilty.”

December 3, 2010 at 09:43 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I suspect Americans cannot make a comment about this

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Dec 4, 2010 1:55:19 PM

This constitutes a special category of Supervised Release Violation cases in the federal court. Under the circumstances set forth in the article, a "time served" guilty plea sounds like a break, but often leads to greater problems, even in a case of actual innocence. You can't really blame the USPO for filing the violation, but guilty pleas as the only basis for the violation should be scrutinized closely and should not be automatic.

Posted by: Stanley Feldman | Dec 5, 2010 9:22:28 AM

Let me make a radical suggestion:

When a person shows up in court to make a plea, he should tell the truth.

Of course there are members of the defense bar who will howl at this Puritanical notion, pointing out that the defendant will be tempted to advance his overall interests by lying.

To them I suggest this: When you talk to your kid about truth-telling, make sure to let him know that he should tell the truth EXCEPT when he could advance his overall interests by lying, in which case lying is OK, since you can always blame someone else, or the system generally, for it. Being honest and taking responsibility for what you say are for suckers.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 6, 2010 9:29:41 AM

The pressure to plead is exacerbated by providing the accused with an institutional lawyer with little time to consider the particular circumstances or background of the defendant so that "one size fits all" decisions are made.
A defendant who pleads guilty at arraignment should have a reasonable period (say, seven days) to withdraw her plea. We allow people a period of time to disavow agreements to buy encyclopedias. Isn't the decision to accept a criminal record for life equally deserving of a period for a change of mind?

Posted by: Lawrence Goldman | Dec 6, 2010 10:46:05 AM

hmm

"Let me make a radical suggestion:

When a person shows up in court to make a plea, he should tell the truth.

Of course there are members of the defense bar who will howl at this Puritanical notion, pointing out that the defendant will be tempted to advance his overall interests by lying.

To them I suggest this: When you talk to your kid about truth-telling, make sure to let him know that he should tell the truth EXCEPT when he could advance his overall interests by lying, in which case lying is OK, since you can always blame someone else, or the system generally, for it. Being honest and taking responsibility for what you say are for suckers.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 6, 2010 9:29:41 AM"


Works for me bill as long as the STATE has the same requirement! Of course that means 50% of the cops in this country would ave to find new jobs since they are incable of that.

that percentage would be even higher in the political side of the state! more than likely upwards of 95% of them!

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 6, 2010 2:25:10 PM

rodsmith --

Personally, I regard myself as obligated to tell the truth, in court and out, regardless of what the state is doing and regardless of what my adversary is doing.

No way I am telling my kid, "Hey, look, if other people are lying, you can to." What I would actually tell him is, "Other people often fall short of their obligation to be honest, but that is not who you are, and in this family we do not live down to the misbehavior of others. We live up to the standards of an honest life. Sometimes that is going to hurt. But we do it anyway."

Do you disagree with that? Should I tell my kid something else?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 6, 2010 4:10:21 PM

No you shouldn't ...that's a perfect message to give any growing child. Our problem is that once they become adults and go into govt service a big percentage seem to FORGET IT!

i also like that old one that says "treat others as you would have them treat you!"

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 7, 2010 8:25:38 PM

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