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Editorial: New York should reform its bail system

An MS-13 gang member in the Suffolk County

An MS-13 gang member in the Suffolk County jail. Photo Credit: Michael E. Ach, 2007

How New York's judges determine who gets bail needs to change. The current system can allow dangerous people to remain free while locking up others too poor to post a nominal bail, even though they pose little risk to the public.

Jonathan Lippman, New York's chief judge, started the move toward a more rational approach in his annual State of the Judiciary speech last week. Albany should take heed: Reform could both improve public safety and save money.

Current state law doesn't require, or even permit judges to consider the risk to the public if a dangerous defendant is allowed to remain free while awaiting trial. That defies all logic. Right now the only purpose of bail is to ensure that a defendant doesn't flee the jurisdiction. So judges weigh factors such as defendants' criminal record and their ties to the community -- such as employment, family and home ownership -- to determine whether they are likely to show up again in court.

New York should join the 46 states that require judges to weigh public safety along with the risk of flight when deciding on bail. That's critical when defendants are charged with violent crimes, but it's also important for people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors. In those cases, release with pretrial supervision, rather than bail, should be an option.

Nationally it costs $19,000 to keep a person in jail before trial, while supervised release -- with conditions such as curfews or drug testing or drug treatment -- costs about $4,600, Lippman said. The tab for a day in jail in Suffolk is $270; in Nassau $236. Judges should have the less expensive option.

It's not justice when people charged with minor, nonviolent offenses who pose little risk to the public are locked up simply because they don't have a few hundred dollars for bail and can't get a for-profit bondsmen to post it for them. Bail bondsman, who typically charge a 10 percent fee, usually don't think it's worth their while to bother with such cases.

Bail is a useful law enforcement tool. But the State Legislature should modernize it to make sure it's used both to promote justice and public safety.