Bail reform could be coming to New York state

May 03, 2018 06:30 PM

When we tell you about an arrest, we often tell you how much bail the person has to pay to get out of jail. If you can't come up with the money, you stay locked up until your trial.

Some people say the centuries-old practice of monetary bail is unfair to poor people. Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of them.

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Last year, New Jersey became the first state to get rid of bail. Now, Cuomo says he wants to do away with it for most crimes.

Bail is a promise to come back to court. However, for poor people, it ends up being a jail sentence in itself -- before it's even decided whether they're guilty.

William Morris has been in the Albany County Jail for a month. His bail was set at $6,000 -- and he's still there because he doesn't have the money.

"I went to Hannaford in Latham Farms with my girlfriend and we attempted to steal $170 worth of steaks and shrimp to get drugs and we got caught like right on the spot," he explained.

Surf and turf won't land you in prison, but it will put you in county jail. That means Morris will miss his appointment to get into a rehab facility, he won't be looking for a job and he won't be on the outside, preparing his defense.

"Let's say that fella you just interviewed, his court date gets cancelled in three weeks. He could sit here for another three, six, seven months," said Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple.

Being charged with a crime is a much different experience for others. Back in 2012, Chris Porco was charged for the axe murder of his father, but unlike Morris charged with petit larceny, Porco walked free after posting $250,000 bail. He was eventually convicted.

Governor Cuomo took on bail in his State of the State this year.

"The blunt ugly reality is that too often, if you can make bail you are set free and if you are too poor to make bail you are punished," argued Cuomo.

Sheriff Apple says about half the people in his jail are there on misdemeanors. If the governor's proposal went through, monetary bail would be eliminated for people charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.

As Albany County's prosecutor, District Attorney David Soares suggests bail amounts to the judge. He says the governor's proposal would completely change the criminal justice system.

"We do see abuses in bail being set and we want an end to that. But the end to that is not to just put together a policy that creates presumptive release on 85 percent of the offenses in the penal law," said Soares.

He says there needs to be a reason for those charged to come back to court. He knows what can happen when defendants skip town or commit another crime.

After being released without having to pay bail, 64-year-old Richard Quinn stabbed a man to death in June of last year.

"He had committed several crimes, he had demonstrated no ability to return to court, so he had warrants issued. The person was on probation, had violated probation and was arrested again," said Soares. "Even though it was a misdemeanor, our office asked for specifically high bail in order to keep that individual in. The judge released that individual on his own recognizance and that individual within the week murdered another man on Grand Street."

"The initial proposal, 1,000 percent against it," said Apple.

Back at the jail, Apple is for bail reform, but not the governor's broad proposal.

"Quantity of heroin being sold or a quantity of cocaine being sold -- do you think that person is going to come back to court knowing that they owe the state now, could be upwards of 10 or 12 years," he asked.

Then there's the money. Apple says it costs $66,000 a year to jail an inmate. The proposal would cut down on the jail population, but the probation department might have to pick up the slack.

Soares worries about paying U.S. Marshals to chase down people who skip their court date.

The 33-year-old Morris says he has two felonies, 10 misdemeanors, and has failed to appear in court a number of times. That surely went into the judge's reasoning to set his bail high.

Morris says now, he's stuck in a cycle.

"You're kind of forced into taking a plea, because you want to get out of jail. Nobody wants to sit in this jail. This isn't fun. So you sit here and the moment they say alright plead guilty to this, or take probation, or do whatever, you're so eager to get out. I'd cut my pinky finger off if they said I could get out. That's how desperate you feel in this situation," said Morris.

Soares is the president-elect of the state District Attorney Association. He says lawmakers and the governor need to have an open discussion if they are serious about bail reform.

NewsChannel 13 wanted to talk to the governor about bail reform. His office declined an interview. 


Asa Stackel

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