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The time-honored practice of bail would seem a positive for defendants offered it, unless they can't make bail. And that's enough of a problem for the poorest suspects that New York City announced yesterday it's moving to end the use of cash bail for those accused of low-level crimes. That plan will give judges more leeway to release those suspects under court supervision. And the aim is to keep many pretrial defendants out of the city's notorious Rikers Island jail. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Every year, thousands of New Yorkers wind up awaiting trial in jail, not because they're considered too violent or dangerous to release, but just because they can't afford to pay for bail.
ELIZABETH GLAZER: The real focus here is to ensure that we have a fair way of dealing with people.
ROSE: Elizabeth Glazer directs the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. She says the initiative announced Wednesday will give judges a new option.
GLAZER: That's between nothing - just releasing somebody back to their neighborhoods with no kind of supervision - and jail, which is the system that we're currently operating on.
ROSE: The exact standards have yet to be finalized. But Glazer says judges will be able to order supervised release for about 3,000 defendants, as long as they're found not to pose a public safety risk. The initiative is expected to cost about $18 million. Most of the money will come from assets seized by the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance.
CYRUS VANCE: This is an opportunity to enhance fairness in our criminal justice system without sacrificing safety. And if you can do that, you ought to grab it.
ROSE: Reformers have been pushing for changes like this for years, but they didn't get much traction until the story of Kalief Browder attracted national attention. Browder was unable to make $3,000 bail on charges that he stole a backpack. He spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial, where he was repeatedly beaten and placed in solitary confinement. Charges were ultimately dropped and Browder was released, but he committed suicide last month. Paul Prestia was his lawyer.
PAUL PRESTIA: He hoped that the laws could be changed and other young men and women wouldn't go through the same thing, the same ordeal that he experienced. That was his message, and now it's his legacy.
ROSE: In theory, money-bail is not supposed to be punitive. It's just supposed to ensure that the defendant shows up at trial. But in practice, critics say that even a few thousand dollars of bail is more than some defendants can manage. Shima Baradaran teaches law at the University of Utah. She says that's pushing cities and states around the country to experiment with other ways of making sure defendants show up in court.
SHIMA BARADARAN: They see that - look, we're holding a lot of people who could safely be released in our jails. And so if we can release more people on bail, we actually can directly see a lot of savings.
ROSE: That's because it's expensive to keep people in jail. The list of places that have changed their bail system include some big cities like Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, and also some states that tend to be more conservative, like Kentucky. Marc Levin directs the group Right on Crime.
MARC LEVIN: Across the country, even in conservative states, there is a great interest in how to not bring people to jail who don't need to be there, and then once people are in jail, prior to trial, making sure that they don't languish there.
ROSE: After all, says Levin, these are people who are still waiting for their day in court. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.