Audit Calls NYC Bail System Costly and Unequal

MANHATTAN (CN) — Nearly two years after the suicide of a former Rikers inmate highlighted a punitive bail system, an audit released Thursday shows that it costs New York City $116 million a year to lock up mostly young black men awaiting trial for misdemeanors.

Next week would have been the 24th birthday of Kalief Browder, who killed himself after spending three years in solitary confinement on charges of stealing a backpack. Always maintaining his innocence, Browder was 16 at the start of his ordeal. He never went to trial.

The 22-year-old hanged himself on June 6, 2015, two years after his release, igniting a groundswell of protest and a six-episode documentary TV miniseries.

A month after Browder killed himself, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio invoked the tragedy in announcing a wide-ranging reform of the city’s bail system.

On Thursday, the city’s Independent Budget Office revealed how expensive, discriminatory and unjust the system remained as of last year.

“On an average day 2,627, or 34 percent, of the pretrial detainees were being held because they were remanded,” the office director Ronnie Lowenstein wrote in a 4-page letter. “The annual cost of detaining this population is approximately $78 million.”

The audit shows how many pretrial detainees fit Browder’s demographic profile: 52 percent were black, and 32 percent from 25 to 34 years old.

Another 22 percent were 18 to 24 years old, and 3 percent were 16 or 17.

“The most common type of charge, accounting for nearly 14 percent of the pretrial detainee population, was ‘Other Misdemeanors,’” the audit found. “The category ‘Other Misdemeanors’ encompasses various misdemeanor charges such as resisting arrest, criminal trespassing, criminal mischief, and possession of stolen property.”

Council Member Rory Lancman, a Democrat from Queens who chairs the Committee on Courts & Legal Services, and requested the audit, found that its conclusions are clear.

“Today’s IBO report confirms that the vast majority of people on Rikers Island are there because they cannot afford bail, are overwhelmingly black and brown, and many are there for nonviolent, low-level offenses — all at enormous expense to taxpayers,” he said in a statement. “It reaffirms the urgent need for Mayor de Blasio to put in place a real plan to close Rikers Island.”

De Blasio signed off this year on a plan to close Rikers Island over the next 10 years.

City Hall did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

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