Deborah Dietrich, of OAR

Deborah Dietrich, standing outside the W. State Street offices of Opportunities, Alternatives, And Resources of Tompkins County.

Starting next year, Tompkins County’s Criminal Justice System will begin a more than $800,000 test to see whether or not increased social services, rather than habitual incarceration, is what is needed to address chronic overpopulation in the Tompkins County Jail.

Funded by an anticipated $1.3 million windfall from several casinos in the region, the extensive suite of proposals will provide increased mental health services, more probation officers and an improved inmate re-entry model in the hope a rehabilitative approach to the criminal justice will be more effective than one of crime and punishment in keeping the jail population low.

One gap in the system a number of activists have called for in recent months will go unfilled: comprehensive bail reform, or a set of policies intended to eliminate the holding of any non-violent offenders before convicted of a crime. This, according to an analysis of the Tompkins County Jail inmate population over the past year, could be said of approximately 60 percent of all inmates in the jail who, in the eyes of the law, are technically innocent.

It is also a policy that local civil liberties nonprofit Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources of Tompkins County’s director, Deborah Dietrich, says disproportionately impacts those charged with crimes in rural counties.

How Bail Is Used, And How Bail Is Limited

The United States – one of just two countries in the world to employ the system – uses the cash bail system as a tool to ensure those facing trial will, in fact show up to trial. Requiring a deposit of cash to secure one’s freedom, bail has historically been used as a financial deterrent to keep someone from running away or missing court, oftentimes set at a substantial enough amount to eliminate flight risk.

Oftentimes, it’s up to the individual facing charges or their families to produce the money to put up for bond. If they can’t, organizations like OAR – which runs its own bail fund – or a bail bondsman, who charge a premium set by the state (usually 10 to 20 percent of the bail amount) in order to profit off of posting bond for you, will step in to pay instead, under the condition that you are willing to stay under their watch until the bail is returned.

“Certainly, it’s an accountable system,” Thomas Backus, a bail bondsman based out of Dryden said in an interview. “I think it’s a system that works.”

“I don’t think anything’s ever going to change, personally,” said Backus.

Though both groups serve their own functions,since 2013, organizations like OAR have been limited in how much they can contribute toward someone’s bail.

Until 2013, OAR’s bail fund was never governed by New York State Law. Then, that year, a ruling in a New York City court with statewide implications removed OAR’s ability to bail on felonies – no matter if they were violent in nature or not – and set a limit of $2,000, a number which, in theory, would prohibit the bailing out of more significant flight-risk inmates.

Though recent efforts by OAR and the county’s Reentry Subcommittee have helped to reduce their annual bails from a high of 71 nine years ago to a low of 13 last year, some in the Tompkins County Jail (at least, those among the typical 50 or so in the jail awaiting sentencing each month, according to figures from the Tompkins County Sheriff's Office) who may otherwise qualify for a bailout through OAR may not receive one, partly due to the state’s limits on how much a group like OAR can contribute. Judges in Tompkins County, Dietrich said, can set bails slightly over the $2,000 limit, leaving the accused scrambling to make up the rest and, in a small town, impartiality can be fundamentally skewed by unspoken bias by the local magistrates, who are elected and do not require a legal background.

And even with recent outreach efforts, particularly with revised policies on alternatives to incarceration proposed by the county, some judges – “the ones who really needed to hear it,” Dietrich, said – were not in attendance.

“They’re just not interested in the ATIs,” Dietrich said. “And the only thing I can say to that is it’s an electoral issue: those people are voted into office. And what ought to happen is someone ought to run against those two rural magistrates and show exactly how much these individuals have cost the taxpayer through unnecessary incarceration.”

“There’s a clear difference between the judges who are lawyers and those with no legal background,” she added.

The patterns are clear in OAR’s most recent bail reports. Between 2007 and 2016, Ithaca City Court, Ithaca Town Court and Tompkins County Court saw 157 individual bails posted by OAR’s bail fund. During that same time, the smaller Dryden and Groton Town Courts accounted for 176 bails combined. Add in bails posted by OAR in Lansing Town Court (54), Enfield (33), Newfield (39) and Ulysses (32), OAR was responsible, countywide, for keeping 530 individuals not convicted of any crime out of jail. Going even further, on average, Dietrich estimates, one bailout by the nonprofit saves the county approximately $7,200.

Yet, there are some OAR can’t help and there, some may either settle on jail or resort to individuals like Backus.

Backus, who’s been in the business about three decades now, says bonds issued in Tompkins County’s various courts, because of efforts like OAR, rarely trickle down to his office, leaving him to seek much of his business from the 48 or so counties across the state he estimates he does business in. His starting bail amount, he says, is $1,000, and goes up from there.

His typical bail locally? Approximately $5,000.

Can Anything Be Done Legislatively?

Though a desire for some sort of bail reform has been expressed by several members of the County Legislature, that measure, should lawmakers choose to pursue it, will be left to the state to work out. Fortunately for advocates of such an effort, a headline-making organization from New York City is looking to push for it.

Six weeks ago, JustLeadershipUSA – the organization behind a campaign to close the notorious 10-jail complex on New York City’s Rikers Island – announced the start of a statewide campaign to mobilize an effort for comprehensive bail reform at the state level. Its goal? to address the issue of incarceration specifically within New York State, which on any given date holds approximately 25,000 inmates in its jails, on average. (54,000 others, the group will note, are held in the state’s prisons.)

70 percent of them, according to campaign’s New York State Organizer Katie Schaffer, are being held pretrial and have not been convicted, legally defining them as innocent.

The bail statute is supposed to ensure people return to court but, Schaffer said, has been proven unnecessary in the wake of innovations like transportation assistance and automated text message reminders, what she calls an evidence-based system proven to get people to return to court just as effectively as cash bail, especially when those charged are not deemed to be a significant flight risk by the court.  

“People’s freedom should not be contingent on whether or not they have access to the money to pay bail,” she said.

There are some barriers to their goal: the moonshot of comprehensive, statewide policy reform to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system has been an elusive goal in Albany for a number of years due, in part, says fellow New York State Campaign Coordinator Erin Leigh George, to both the ambitious scope of the mission of JustLeadershipUSA as well as the division of interests between New York City and the rest of New York State.

“Our criminal justice landscape looks very different in all 62 counties,” said George. “Oftentimes, solutions tend to be driven by New York City given the legal advocacy resources that we have here, even though the drivers of incarceration vary greatly across the whole state. In building out this campaign, we really wanted to roll out a legislative agenda that would meet the needs of all New Yorkers.”

Among its policy goals, the campaign calls for the complete elimination of cash bail and no detention for those charged with non-serious felonies, the guaranteed provision of a speedy trial (which New York, without a real timeline for one’s day in court after arrest, does not have) and discovery law reform, or the reform of a system surrounding one’s ability to access materials pre-trial that may have a direct impact on whether or not the accused may accept a plea bargain or lead to wrongful convictions.

“This creates a system where somebody sitting in jail – on bail they can’t pay, with no sense of when they might get to trial and no information about their case – could be coerced into plea deals,” said Schaffer. “"And in that way, the system allows for the coercion of plea deals.”

Even early on in their efforts, Schaffer said there is a “real energy” around the campaign across the state. So far, 85 organizations in 20 different counties across the state have already signed on to the campaign, Schaffer said, ranging from large, established legal organizations to small, grassroots activist groups, allowing them to establish communications with legislators both at the state and municipal level to build grassroots support.

To sell the idea, the group is currently focusing on the 10 counties with the highest jail populations in New York State, encouraging each campaign in those communities to share their stories and put a human face on the consequences of unnecessarily high bails. One area of focus is In Broome County, where one college-aged individual working with the campaign, Diami Nicholson, shared a story of him meeting up with an ex-girlfriend on her request, neither realizing a previous order of protection had not been lifted, leading to his arrest, a bail he could not pay, and two weeks in the Broome County Jail.

His incarceration, he said, was based on an investigator’s previous charge of him breaking a door during a previous argument, even after the girlfriend deemed at the time an order of protection was unnecessary. Because he was stuck in jail for two weeks, he failed all his classes and, because he was in jail, couldn’t communicate with his professors or his landlord, eventually causing him to lose his financial aid and his apartment.

While people like Nicholson are sometimes able to bounce back, others – the working class in particular – may have a tougher time recovering from a similar setback.

“These people are barely making it on an everyday basis, and now you’re going to take two weeks away from them where they’re not able to communicate with anyone,” Nicholson said. “They’re losing everything and they have to start all over, and that puts pressure on the Department of Social Services – on the county – to maintain these people coming out of jail… two weeks in jail can take about two years of your life to come back from.”

 Follow Nick Reynolds on Twitter @Nickthaca

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