Published on WIVB.com4
By: Ali Ingersoll
Updated: Apr 26, 2018 06:22 PM EDT
BUFFALO - For several months, volunteers with the Partnership for the Public Good sat in during bail hearings at Buffalo City Court. Over that time, they witnessed, logged, and recorded 240 hearings.
"Bail is not intended to be an amount people cannot afford," said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, the deputy directory for PPG. "It's not intended to keep them in jail. It's intended to help them come back for court date."
Ó Súilleabháin co-authored the report titled Cruelty and Cost: Money Bail in Buffalo. During the course of recording court proceedings, the partnership discovered judges used money bail in 64% of the arraignments and every single bail set used a monetary condition, despite state statutes allowing judges to use nine different conditions of bail including unsecured bonds and release under supervision.
The report shows that 64% of the 1200 people who are in the Erie County jails are there while awaiting trial. Each day, it costs $164 to house a person there so it's impacting the public as well as those who find themselves in the courtroom and unable to pay bail.
"Your life just unravels when all of sudden you're whisked out of community and put behind bars before you're able to get life in order before that major disruption," said Rebecca Town, a public defender with legal aid. "For people who are living in poverty and don't have the means readily available, then they will very likely be staying in custody."
Town finds the cash bail system which is currently in place is very unfair and feels frustrated seeing her clients sit behind bars solely because they don't have the money to put upfront to cover the cost of bail.
The report finds the average bail set for a misdemeanor is $5000; that's five times higher than what is set for the same level charge in New York City; felony bail averages $10,000 in Buffalo while it is $5000 in New York City.
"You don't really get to learn the rationale for why these bails are set this high," said the deputy director.
Ó Súilleabháin says those sitting in court felt the proceeding moved rather quickly and a report out of Chicago shows the average bail hearing lasts 37 seconds.
"You have judges making really quick decisions that have huge impacts on defendants."
The partnership is offering several recommendations to those involved in the criminal justice system at state and local levels.
They're asking Erie County District Attorney John Flynn to direct his ADAs to stop seeking cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. This is something several DAs in the lower part of the state did earlier this year.
They're encouraging those in the courts to conduct independent assessments of the ability to pay bail. According to the report, only one judge asked defendants how cash bail would impact their personal and professional lives and if they had enough money to cover the cost.
Finally, they're asking judges to begin considering alternative bail options.
Those with the partnership believe these recommendations which could be put into place today, could change outcomes for defendants who appear in court tomorrow.
"If the court can see they're doing something to interrupt cycle, that can make a different," said Town. "You just don't have that opportunity in jail."
Find the original news feature on WIVB here.