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Queens Chronicle

OPINION Mass Bailout shows unfairness of our justice system

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Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2018 10:30 am

Earlier this week, I participated in the launch of the Mass Bailout, spearheaded by the RFK Human Rights organization and Kerry Kennedy, where we posted bail in Brooklyn for a woman who was stuck in custody because she could not afford to buy her freedom. This was the first of hundreds of Bailouts that will take place this month, as of legions of volunteers post bail for bail-eligible women and teenagers.

The Mass Bailout effort is remarkable on a number of levels.

First, it exposes the blatant unfairness of our bail system. The purpose of cash bail is to ensure that an individual returns to court, period. But all too often today bail is used as a mechanism to lock people up indefinitely. Nearly 3,000 people -- 36 percent of the total number of detainees currently housed on Rikers Island — are bail-eligible and incarcerated solely because of their financial status.

The harrowing reality is that our bail system is built on the backs of people too poor to buy the freedom that a court has already determined they are entitled to. For every person who is stuck in jail without the ability to pay their bail, there are others who were charged with the same offense but had the monetary resources to get out, go home, and live among us. That makes no sense. No one should be in jail because they cannot afford to pay cash bail.

Second, the Mass Bailout is highlighting how broken and outdated our bail system is in New York City.

Even if you have the money to pay bail, it is an arduous and cumbersome process. To begin, we had to fill out forms at the Brooklyn Detention Center, and then wait for the paperwork to be faxed to Rikers Island. Yes, you read that right: in 2018, the Department of Correction still depends on fax machines. Then, we waited. Only after the paperwork was processed and faxed back were we able to actually pay bail for the individual we were bailing out.

While we were waiting, I met a woman from Canarsie who was working to pay $1 bail to secure her son’s release. Yes, you read that right, too: $1 bail. She showed up at the Detention Center the previous day, after a long trip, ready to go through the convoluted process to pay bail. However, the system was down and bail could not be processed. As a result, she had to come back to the Detention Center on Monday, instead of going to work, and her loved one remained in Rikers Island.

In comparison, our team was lucky. We did not have to come back the next day. The fax machine was working. The system was not broken -- at least not any more broken than usual. No one should have to experience this kind of bureaucracy, especially when their loved one’s freedom is on the line.

Sadly, these bail horror stories are all too common. It is hard to believe that in 2018 there is not a simpler and more efficient system for defendants and people who are paying bail. The more attention that can be paid to the structural problems with our bail system, the better.

The Mass Bailout effort will make a difference in the lives of so many New Yorkers and their families, but it is doing more than that. It is exposing how badly we must demand a bail system that is fair, equitable, and actually works.

Rory Lancman is New York City Councilman for the 24th District, in central and northern Queens.

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