Can’t buy freedom: Pols, justice activists call on DAs to end cash bail system for low-level offenders

The fight to close Rikers Island, decarcerate its population and end cash bail in the courts reached its latest chapter on Oct. 6 with a protest outside the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

Elected officials joined protesters in decrying the cash bail system and the sorry state of Rikers Island outside the base of District Attorney Cyrus Vance, located at One Hogan Place in Lower Manhattan. They condemned Vance’s use of cash bail, which orders arrested individuals held in custody until they can pay for their release; critics say it deprives low-income New Yorkers accused of non-violent offenses to get out of jail before trial.

Amidst undulating protest signs and reverberating chants, Queens Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani shared that since his visit to Rikers Island in early September, two more people have died while behind bars. He stated that he visited Queens Criminal Court on Monday to watch the arraignment process, and was struck by the language of the court.

Dozens of protesters gathered outside of One Hogan Place demanding an end to cash bail practices. Photo by Dean Moses

“They would say the people… the people ask for this, the people ask for that, so let it be very clear that these district attorneys across five boroughs are doing this in the name of New Yorkers. They are throwing New Yorkers into cages on Rikers Island in our name and they are escaping responsibility time and time again,” Mamdani said. “These very DAs have gone on tours of Rikers Island, decrying how it is a humanitarian crisis—do not be fooled. These are the creators of that crisis on that island.” 

Assembly member Zohran Mamdani says two more people have died in the month since he last visited the prison. Photo by Dean Moses

Those at the rally argued that cash bail perpetuates a system that punishes the poor for not having the wealth to secure their release, leading them subjected to violence and inhumane conditions on Rikers Island. Manhattan state Senator Robert Jackson says he has seen this in play firsthand.

“The judge was hearing misdemeanor cases, and in one case in particular the DA requested a $5,000 dollar cash bail or $15,000 bond, and the individual, in my opinion, could not afford that. So, what did the judge do? The judge said okay, $5,000 cash and $10,000 [bond]. He didn’t even have $200, and they knew it and we know it. That is why we are asking to end it now,” Jackson said.   

Senator Robert Jackson calls for an end to cash bail. Photo by Dean Moses

For decades, the issue of bail disparity has been placed at the forefront of a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects the Black and Brown community. Advocates have often found that many are willing to take a plea simply to avoid spending time in jail, even if they are innocent. Additionally, those at the rally say that since April 2020, the number of pre-trial individuals has risen from 2,718 to 4,578. They believe that the District Attorney’s office is complicit in this due to their practice to seek bail at what they say is “virtually every eligible case.” 

Although both elected officials and advocacy groups are also calling for Rikers Island to shut down, they admit that this may take some time to achieve, so in the meantime they argue that cash bail must be immediately halted.

Enraged by the District Attorney’s continued use of cash bail. Photo by Dean Moses

In response to these claims, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office told amNewYork Metro that as of Sept. 27, they have enacted a temporary policy to consent to the release individuals of 24 pre-trial felony defendants, and immediately resolved six felony cases with terms that allowed for the defendants’ release.

Additionally, the office says that they moved to dismiss two misdemeanor cases, and actively seeking program support for 17 additional felony defendants. While these efforts have been made, the DA’s office stresses that although release consent was given, individuals could still be held by the Corrections Department for other reasons, such as a parole violation or if bail has been set in another county.

A man holds a list of names of all those who perished on Rikers Island this year. Photo by Dean Moses

In a memo on Sept. 27, Executive Assistant D.A. Joan Illuzzi Orbon, Chief of the Trial Division, to Trial Division Attorneys wrote:  

“As you may have heard, we recently consented to the release of 20 defendants who were being detained on Rikers Island on non-violent felonies as they awaited trial.  Conditions in the jails there, as reported in the media, are of deep concern to the Office, and it was clear that the potential harm to these defendants outweighed their potential to harm the community. Unfortunately, those same conditions persist, and will inform our bail practices for at least the next few weeks, as we continue to monitor the conditions on Rikers Island.  To that end, we will refrain from making justified bail applications in situations where defendants are likely to fail to appear if bail is not set, but where we believe the threat of confinement under these conditions outweighs the threat to the community,” the memo read, listing conditions in which bail should not be requested.

The demand was clear, “Free them all.” Photo by Dean Moses