Brooklyn Community Bail Fund: Giving Low-Income Individuals a Chance in Court

Clean and sober for five years, Tammy is the mother of seven and proud grandmother of two. “I’m an ex-addict that is struggling every day to try to get myself together,” explains Tammy.  She had steered her life back on track after years of treatment and hard work, but a relatively small issue threatened to turn her life upside down: Tammy was arrested for jumping a subway turnstile.

Tammy was terrified because she had been in this situation before. She pled guilty to 16 misdemeanor crimes during her struggle with addiction. Each of her guilty pleas occurred on the same day as her arrest because she couldn’t afford bail and pleading guilty meant she would avoid pre-trial detention on Rikers Island. “You’ll do anything in that moment just to go home,” Tammy said. “You’ll stand there and say, ‘Yes I did it,’ with tears streaming down your face. Because you just want to go home. There is nothing you wouldn’t do.”

The purpose of bail in New York is to ensure that defendants return to court for trial. The defendant pays a sum of money as collateral to avoid being kept in jail while awaiting his or her court date. If the defendant fails to show up at court, they forfeit the money. Bail was designed as an incentive to come back to court, not a punishment.

Yet in New York City, 80 percent of people charged with misdemeanors (crimes like low-level drug possession, jumping a subway turnstile, driving with a suspended license, petty larceny, or trespassing) cannot afford bail of $1,000 or less. So poverty alone means people like Tammy—who may be innocent or likely to beat the charges against them at trial—plead guilty just to go home. That’s what happens at many arraignments. Bail isn’t the only reason a defendant may plead guilty but it  doesn’t help—99.6 percent of convictions in misdemeanor cases in New York City come from guilty pleas.

And guilty pleas are by no means a “get out of jail free” card. Guilty pleas create or add to a person’s criminal record, which has enormous ramifications for securing housing, accessing public services, or finding a job.

The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund is an innovative remedy to the broken bail system in New York. The fund posts bail for misdemeanor defendants they are confident will return to court so defendants have the opportunity to fight their case, assist with their defense, and avoid pleading guilty just to go home. N-Map worked with the Bail Fund to vividly show the human cost of New York’s broken bail system. Avoiding an overly technical explanation, our video aims to illustrate through powerful first-person stories that we have two justice systems in New York: one for those with means and one for the poor.

Watch the video above to hear Tammy’s story and others who have been denied a fair trial only because of their poverty. To learn more about the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, and the other ways they help misdemeanor defendants, visit their website.

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