Over the past several months New York City has taken laudable steps to fix a number of problems related to our bail system. The city has expanded access to charitable bail funds, supervised release and diverted low-level offenses away from the formal arrest process. This represents progress and the hope for more substantive reform.
But as a citywide public defender that represents clients in every criminal courtroom throughout this city, we see a number of problems that go beyond the more substantial fixes planned by public officials. Many of these issues, which we believe are the simplest to remedy, relate to payment and processing of bail. Small hiccups at any point in the process can delay somebody’s release and result in unnecessary time on Rikers Island. For the “system” this problem may be minor, but for our individual clients the impact can be devastating. And while some of these problems do not have an easy fix, one does: people who have the money to pay bail should be allowed to do so in court, before being sent to Rikers.
At various points over the last several months, our clients have had reasonable bail set by a judge who authorized payment of bail with a credit card. This is very encouraging, and represents a welcome departure from the onerous use of cash and insurance company bail. In each instance, the person being held had a credit card or debit card in their pocket at arraignments, and was willing and able to pay bail.
This should be easy—with a credit card in their pocket the person should be able to make the bail payment themselves and be released from the courthouse. Unfortunately, in our experience, this is often not the case. Clerks have often refused to make the appropriate accommodations to facilitate payment. In other instances, our clients have been told that payment could not be accepted because it was a bank-issued debit card instead of an official credit card. The results of this are disastrous for our clients: those who do not post bail in court risk being sent to Rikers, where their credit card will be vouchered as personal property and rendered useless to them.
The bail system has a litany of problems, but we should all agree that this should not be one of them. People who have the ability to pay bail at arraignments should not be sent to Rikers Island under any circumstances. Not ever. Technology exists to make payment possible in the courtroom, and clerks could be authorized to take the defendant’s credit card for processing the payment and return the signature slip. Arrangements should be made to hold defendants and facilitate payment before they are sent to Rikers.
This is a big problem, with a simple fix. As New Yorkers, we are problem solvers. Let’s work together to fix this one.