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OpinionCommentary

Poverty shouldn’t keep New Yorkers in jail

A jail cell.

A jail cell. Credit: iStock

Fifty-five years ago, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy championed the Bail Reform Act. Appalled by our wealth-based jail system, my father proposed substantive measures to stop it. He ordered all Department of Justice attorneys to recommend the release of defendants on their own recognizance “in every practicable case.”

If the lack of action on criminal justice reform in the recent state budget is any indication, New York seems to have missed the memo.

From the South Bronx to Long Island and Western New York, 70 percent of New Yorkers await their day in court from behind bars, doing so not because they are guilty. They are in jail only because they can’t pay exorbitant cash bails. That isn’t justice, and it should disturb every New Yorker.

In New York City, taxpayers foot a $270,000 annual bill to keep someone detained at Rikers Island. Statewide, pretrial detention costs taxpayers more than $350 million a year. How can we support a system that not only ruins families, but does so at an inexcusable cost to taxpayers?

This isn’t merely an injustice of wasted money. Extortionate bails separate individuals from their families, often for long periods of time. This deprives households of a wage-earner and jeopardizes the health and stability of families. Those with the money to pay bail will never face the disruptions disproportionately visited upon the poor — the isolating impact of bail policies falls squarely on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. That alone should cause all who believe in fairness to reconsider our current approach to imprisonment.

Our legal system should make us safer, but the cash bail system only succeeds in criminalizing poverty. Lawmakers knew this system was unjust half a century ago, when the Bail Reform Act updated our federal system. Yet it survives largely unchanged in our state, victimizing those who can least afford to fight back. My father’s efforts to create a more just and fair prison system were considered groundbreaking in the 1960s. That vital work must continue — which is why Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights continues to advocate on behalf of and alongside lower-income people trapped in the labyrinth of our criminal justice system.

Last August, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights helped free Pedro Hernandez from the brutality of Rikers Island by posting his $100,000 bail. Even though Pedro had not been convicted of any crime, and numerous witnesses claimed that he was not at the scene, Pedro spent more than a year incarcerated in one of America’s most violent jails.

Pedro’s astronomical bail — at the time $250,000 — was impossibly out of reach for most New Yorkers, including Pedro’s mother, Jessica Perez. Until our bail posting on his behalf, Pedro languished in a cell instead of thriving in a classroom. Meanwhile, the prosecutor on Pedro’s case had the upper hand, delaying discovery so Pedro had no idea what possible evidence there could be against him for a crime he didn’t commit. He was repeatedly offered only a coercive plea bargain as a way out of jail. Our system failed Pedro and his family. As a young man of color growing up in the Bronx, Pedro already faced systemic challenges. The cash bail system added one more hurdle.

Shortly after his release from Rikers on Sept. 6, 2017, Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark cleared Pedro Hernandez of the charges. His case was dismissed. How many other young people like Pedro are not as fortunate?

This year, legislators in Albany have an opportunity to implement policies that will improve the lives of New Yorkers and their families. Last year’s effort to Raise the Age was just a first step, as our criminal justice system still disproportionally penalizes low-income New Yorkers and people of color. We must build on our successes and reform the bail system now.

I know New York can deliver equal justice to all — and this legislative session is a critical test of how serious our elected officials are about reforming a broken system. We must all rise to the occasion.

Kerry Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, an advocacy nonprofit organization.

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