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Audit: NYC's bail system is expensive and discriminatory

Almost two years ago, Kalief Browder killed himself after having spent three years in solitary confinement awaiting trial for a misdemeanor. His suicide drew attention to the problem of young offenders -- usually Black or Hispanic -- being held in jail for indeterminate periods even though their charges are minor. Mayor Bill de Blasio was inspired by the story to call for reform.

A new audit of New York City's bail system by the Independent Budget Office highlights the need for that reform. Here is some telling data:

Races of those given pretrial detention instead of being released on bail in 2016:

  • Black: 52 percent
  • Hispanic: 33 percent
  • Whites: 10 percent

Since members of each race commit crimes at roughly the same rate, the disparity is startling. Blacks make up approximately 25.5 percent of New York City's population, according to the U.S. Census, while Hispanics account for 38.6 percent and whites about 44 percent.

What are these people being charged with? "The most common type of charge," says the report, "accounting for nearly 14 percent of the pretrial detainee population, was 'Other Misdemeanors.'" That category includes various charges ranging from criminal trespassing to possession of stolen property.

City Council Member Rory Lancman (D-Queens), who chairs the Courts & Legal Services Committee, requested the audit. He urged the closure of Rikers Island in response to the audit report.

"Today's IBO report confirms that the vast majority of people on Rikers Island are there because they cannot afford bail, are overwhelmingly black and brown, and many are there for nonviolent, low-level offenses -- all at enormous expense to taxpayers," he says.

How much is the city spending to hold people in jail instead of letting them bail out? The information provided by the Courthouse News Service doesn't divide up misdemeanor vs. felony detainees, but the total cost is around $78 million a year.

"In 2016, the average daily population for the city's jails was 9,790, of which 7,633, or 78 percent, were pretrial detainees," meaning they were denied bail or could not afford to pay bail at arraignment, according to a letter accompanying the report. About 34 percent were there because they were denied bail altogether.

Will closing Rikers have a meaningful impact on a system where bail is being denied to large groups of people?

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