Legal Aid Highlights Success of Alternate Bail Forms, Issues Related to Prosecuting Violence in City Jails

As New York City lawmakers consider legislation meant to encourage greater use of unsecured and partially secured bonds during bail, The Legal Aid Society emphasized how these less restrictive forms of bail have been successful in ensuring clients’ return to court.

Though judges in New York City regularly set bail through cash or an insurance company bond, the state’s bail laws also allow for judges to set bail in other ways – such as through an unsecured bond, where an individual promises to pay if not appearing at a later date, or a partially secured bond, where a portion of the amount is paid.

In testimony Tuesday, Joshua Norkin, a Staff Attorney in the Criminal Defense Practice’s Special Litigation Unit, said very few clients were released on these forms of bail – yet when they were, the outcomes tended to be very successful. Norkin noted how one of his clients made bail on a partially secured bond. The client was eventually acquitted, said Norkin, who oversees the Society’s Decarceration Project, which is focused on reducing and ending unnecessary pre-trial incarceration.

Norkin’s written testimony listed other cases where Legal Aid clients made all their court appearances after being released on partially and unsecured bonds. These forms of bail are routinely used in the federal court system, he said.

When Legal Aid attorneys sought unsecured or partially secured bonds, Norkin said they have been met with “puzzled looks, silence and a judiciary that has largely not acknowledged that these remedies exist.” The bill, Intro #1373-A, would make it harder to ignore these remedies, said Norkin.

Earlier in the hearing, when New York City Council members examined the issue of prosecuting violence in city jails, Legal Aid noted many inmate arrests were rooted in use of force by jail guards. “Assault on staff is the classic ‘cover charge’ meant to justify a bad use of force,” Peter Jones, Attorney-in-Charge of the Bronx office for the Criminal Defense Practice, said in his written testimony. As a result, Jones said early discovery of video and phone recordings, facility access and prompt receipt of incident reports were some of the things required for an effective defense.

Meanwhile, Jones said Legal Aid clients reported a “pervasive culture of sexual abuse” at the Rose M. Singer Center, a facility for female Rikers Island inmates. Jones listed a number of inmate complaints, but said none were ever prosecuted or investigated in any meaningful way by prosecutors. This failure “has perpetuated a systemic culture of rape and sexual abuse, particularly of female inmates in custody,” he wrote.

In Jane Doe v. City of New York, the Criminal Defense Practice’s Special Litigation Unit is pressing a class action lawsuit on the sexual abuse of inmates at the facility.