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Jails and Bail: We got a snapshot. We wanted a moving picture.

Last week, the New York City Independent Budget Office reported on the large number of young men who are incarcerated on Rikers Island, the city’s jail complex, because they are awaiting trial and can’t make bail.

The May 16 bail report came to the City Council in a 4-page letter addressed to Rory Lancman, the chair of the council’s committee on Courts & Legal Services. The statistics reported were certainly alarming. Of the city’s 63,758 admitted to the city’s jails in 2016, 78 percent were pre-trial detainees. On an average day, 7,633 individuals were in jail awaiting trial and about 52 percent of those individuals were in jail because they couldn’t post bail, with a median bail set at $5,000.

This is obviously not a good thing, and Rikers is far from the only jail suffering from this backlog of cases.

But we noticed that there was a lack of  comparative statistics in this alarming document. And although the IBO report provided a link to a similar report in 2011, it didn’t mention that between 2010 and 2016, the number of people admitted to the city’s jails had dropped by a third – from 95,000 seven years ago to 63,758 last year. Looking at the average daily population of pre-trial detainees who could not make bail, there were 4,772 in 2010 and 3,931 in 2016 – 18 percent fewer. The median bail set in 2010 was twice as high — $10,000.

According to the city’s Department of Correction, the number of people detained on bail of $2000 or less has dropped by 36 percent since early 2014. There are new strategies to make it easier to pay bail and diversion programs to reduce the number of low risk people who enter jails.

Why didn’t the IBO mention the improvement? We talked a bit with Doug Turetsky, chief of staff and communications director there. He agreed that arrests are down in the city and mentioned the efforts underway to decriminalize misdemeanors, as well as the ongoing effort to move lower-risk pre-trial detainees out of jail.  The report, he says, “was a snapshot of 2016. That’s what we were asked to do. That was what was agreed to.”

The statistics still show “a substantial share of people who are sitting in jail are sitting there because they can’t make bail,” he says.

We agree that this is a troubling. But we’d still like to see more acknowledgement of the progress that’s been made.


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