It can be expensive to be charged with a crime. For those facing charges, there can be lawyer’s fees, court costs, and lost wages. And currently the city keeps three percent of your bail deposit – even if you show up for court. But that all changes next week.
Bail fees currently account for $700,000 of New York City’s revenue. That’s a drop in the bucket for a city with an 88 billion-dollar budget. But bail reform activists say that for the defendants who can’t afford it, that’s big money.
Joshua Norkin is an attorney for The Legal Aid Society, which provides legal assistance to New York’s poorest defendants. Norkin says the three percent fee is basically the modern-day equivalent of a poor tax, because you can’t get out of jail without paying it.
“For our clients who are already sort of trying to get by are living paycheck to paycheck. Taking three percent out of that bail money is something that directly would harm them,” said Norkin.
The city agrees that the three percent fee was just too much for many defendants. So they amended the original rule to eliminate the fee, stating in the amendment that the small loss of revenue to the city was not worth the financial burden on its citizens.
But some bail reform activists say that eliminating the fee isn’t enough. Elena Weissmann is the director of The Bronx Freedom Fund, which helps pay bail for low-income defendants. She says that if you get arrested, but can come up with quick cash or a bond for bail, you can go home. If not, you get locked up. And she thinks that’s unfair.
“Abolishing this 3 percent fee is in no way bail reform. People will continue to be caged for their poverty. Just the side effects of it will now be lessened. And I hope that it is a sign of things to come and not a way for the city to kind of make piecemeal efforts and call it bail reform,” said Weissmann.
Activists agree that the city’s entire bail policy is in need of a major overhaul, like offering non-monetary alternatives to bail. Bianca Tylek is the director of the Corrections Accountability Project at the Urban Justice Center.
“I’m happy to see the city making this change and I think that is really the basis of what’s to come, which is, hopefully, the end of the commercial bail bond industry,” said Tylek.
City officials have vowed to consider large-scale bail reform, but for now, beginning next Saturday, defendants will be getting 100 percent of their bail deposits back.
Update February 10, 2018: An earlier version of this piece listed the director of the Corrections Accountability Project as Bianca Talek. It is Bianca Tylek.