Lancman says many non-violent, and often innocent, people sit in jail for days simply because they cannot afford bail.
BY LYNN EDMONDS
When Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito assigned leadership positions to the 51 new City Council Members on Jan. 22, 2014, Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) was one of the relatively few Council Members that was not assigned to chair one of the 37 existing committees or seven subcommittees.
Nine months later, however – in the middle of the term – Lancman proposed his own committee: the Courts and Legal Services Committee.
Now, that young committee is at the epicenter of citywide conversations about community-police relations and criminal justice. Its proponents would say that it’s provided smart, technical policy solutions to reduce both inequality and wasted public funds.
For instance, the committee has been at the forefront of a push to reform bail.
That move could affect up to 78 percent of individuals on Rikers Island – the percentage of individuals who are awaiting trial. Of these pre-trial detainees, many are dangerous. But a good number are not. About 46 percent of them will be acquitted, have their cases dismissed or receive a sentence without any jail time, Lancman’s office found.
Many of these individuals are interred not because they pose a risk to the public or because they’re likely to run away, but because they cannot afford seemingly small sums such as $500 or $1000, Lancman said.
“They’re sitting in jail because they’re poor,” he said.
Lancman said not only does this prevent them from earning income and being with their families, but it also costs the city $170,000 a year per person.
The councilman says that money could be saved if the City posted the $500 or $1000 bail up front – a sum that would cover just one or two days in jail (the average pre-trial stay is five to seven), and, of course, be repaid if and when the defendant showed up in court.
That’s why, he says, the City Council is setting up a bail fund that will pay bail for defendants that are pre-screened by private organizations to determine whether they pose a threat to public safety.
The Councilman is also urging judges to reconsider the formula they use to set bail, asking them to take into account the financial situation of the defendants. He’s also asking the state legislature to allow New York judges to consider the dangerousness of a defendant, not just their flight risk, when determining the price of bail. That is already standard practice in every state except New York and two others.
“It’s up to the state legislature,” he said. “But, we’re hopeful.”
Simultaneously, Mayor Bill de Blasio is working on an effort to have low-level defendants released under supervision with no cash bail requirement. “The councilman is very supportive of the Mayor’s bail reform efforts,” a spokesperson for Lancman said.
On the Mayor’s part, spokesperson Monica Klein said, “Mayor de Blasio, working with Speaker Mark-Viverito and the City Council, has championed efforts to reform the bail system, simplify summons court, and expand access to legal services for New Yorkers. We look forward to continuing to work closely with the Council to further these worthy goals.”
Lancman is also drawing attention to the logistic difficulty of paying bail, for the defendants who are able to scrap up the money to do so. Even without factoring in a long commute to Rikers Island, posting bail can take hours upon hours, and those who do must pay with cash or bank check.
“The bail process in New York City is like if Kafka wrote a novel on criminal justice,” Lancman told Vice.
There is another, little known aspect of the City’s criminal justice system that the Courts and Legal Services Committee addresses. That is the world of difference between a parking ticket and summons ticket for something as seemingly innocuous as riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.
The former is usually no more than $100, and if you fail to pay it, you’ll get an added fine. But the latter requires you to show up in summons court.
Miss the court date?
“Next time you have an interaction with a police officer, you’re going to get handcuffs slapped on you,” Lancman said.
That means New Yorkers who get caught doing something like drinking alcohol in public or littering can “find themselves mired in the criminal justice system, sometimes with very serious consequences,” Lancman said.
In 2013, 458,000 New Yorkers, or about six percent of New York City residents, received summons for such violations. New Yorkers of color receive a disproportionate number of them.
Going after these low-level offenses is part of a “Broken Windows Policing” strategy, Lancman said; a policy he’s not completely against.
“The question isn’t whether preserving public order is important, both for its own sake and as a prophylactic against more serious crime – it is!” he said in an op-ed for the Daily News.
But he says those low-level offenses should be treated more like a parking violation and less like a crime.
“Dial down the temperature of police enforcement by converting potentially arrestable offenses into the banal equivalent of a parking ticket,” he said in the same op-ed.
All in all, Lancman, who is characterized as a progressive, hopes that his committee can help New Yorker’s get “equal access to justice,” and “equal treatment in the justice system.”
That doesn’t mean that he has always seen eye to eye with those who advocate for police reform. He supported the hiring of 1,000 new police officers, while groups like the Police Reform Organizing Project and the Coalition to End Broken Windows did not.
“To do justice on the issue of justice, you need to have thick skin,” Lancman said. “The issue of criminal justice reform is a very polarizing one, and I try to handle it as responsibly as possible.”
The Councilman’s district, which covers Kew Gardens Hills, Pomonok, Electchester, Fresh Meadows, Hillcrest, Jamaica Estates, Briarwood, Parkway Village, Jamaica Hills and Jamaica, is racially, religiously and economically diverse.
“There are many people in my district who are young men of color, or men of color who were once young, who had very negative experiences or interactions with police over the years,” he said. “There are other people in my district who have never had a personal interaction with a police officer, or if they have, they’ve been very positive.”
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, email@example.com or @Ellinoamerikana