Every year, thousands of people, most of whom have not yet been convicted of any crime, are kept in squalid conditions at county jails in Suffolk and Nassau counties. The New York Civil Liberties Union has sued both counties over the inhumane conditions at their respective jails.
The appalling conditions at local county jails must be remedied immediately, but meeting minimum standards is only a temporary solution to a symptom of a much larger problem: over-incarceration.
Suffolk and Nassau counties, like many other places in New York and the United States, incarcerate far too many people for much too long. Fortunately, readily available solutions are available to county leaders. Two sensible criminal justice reforms will significantly reduce jail populations, save taxpayer dollars, maintain public safety and safeguard fundamental rights.
First, officials should work with the courts, public defenders and prosecutors to ensure that people charged with nonviolent, low-level crimes like traffic violations or simple drug possession -- who represent about 75 percent of Suffolk's jail population -- are not locked up while awaiting trial simply because they are impoverished.
A disproportionate number of criminal defendants are poor. Most will return to court to face justice after their arrests and pose no threat to public safety. Yet, most cannot afford to post bail of even a few hundred dollars. That often keeps them locked up in Long Island jails for weeks or months, awaiting trial. For those who ultimately plead guilty or are convicted, their sentences are often shorter than the time they have already spent behind bars simply because they were too poor to afford cash bail.
Pretrial detention leaves people unable to work, attend school, prepare for their legal defense or care for family members. It causes disproportionally higher rates of guilty pleas and longer sentences for the poor and people of color. A 2007 study found that blacks accounted for more than half -- 54 percent -- of people held in Suffolk County jails because they could not afford bail, although they represent 40 percent of the jail population. New York law provides numerous options for releasing defendants on bail conditions that require little or no out-of-pocket expense, such as personal recognizance bonds, unsecured appearance bonds, and unsecured surety bonds. In each alternative, defendants promise to appear in court, and they face monetary and other penalties if they miss their dates. Making better use of these tools will ensure the counties are not needlessly paying to lock up people.
A wealth of research shows that cash bail is not necessary to ensure that defendants will appear in court. The Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan organization that works with governments to improve the justice system, found that less than 0.7 percent of defendants failed to appear in court after being released on their own recognizance, a lower failure to appear rate than for defendants released on cash bail.
In addition to promoting alternative forms of bail, the counties must also adequately fund public defender services -- even when economic times are tough. Poor defendants in both counties often receive second-rate justice because public defenders lack the resources to effectively represent them.
Adequately resourced public defenders keep innocent people out of jail and prevent defendants from needlessly languishing there before trail. They also help ensure that criminal sentences are proportionate and reasonable, and that people who should never be in jail -- such as those with serious mental health illness or addiction problems -- receive cost-effective treatment and services, rather than inhumane, ineffective and expensive incarceration.
To be clear, over-incarceration is distinct from overcrowding. Suffolk County is building a new jail in Yaphank to relieve chronic overcrowding, but this over-budget and long-delayed project doesn't address the problem of over-incarceration.
Increasing jail beds is neither a sustainable nor a cost-effective solution to this urgent crisis. At a time when Nassau and Suffolk counties have made drastic cuts to basic services, reducing pretrial detention would save money. More important, smaller jail populations would help allow the counties to finally treat people held in their custody with basic human dignity.
Amol Sinha is director of the New York Civil Liberties Union's Suffolk County Chapter. Taylor Pendergrass is an NYCLU senior staff attorney.