Photo Courtesy of Flickr/MitchWaxman
Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito this week unveiled a package of legislation targeting the Department of Correction.
By Michael V. Cusenza
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito on Monday announced a package of legislation that, according to the Speaker, will ensure that inmates are not brought to court in Department of Correction uniforms, provide inmate transportation to all criminal court appearances, and allow for the return of bail fees collected by the City if an inmate makes their court appearances.
“It is important that New Yorkers who are unable to afford bail are treated equally to those with more financial resources,” Mark-Viverito said. “This legislation will ensure that those New Yorkers too poor to afford bail are not prejudiced or stigmatized for being incarcerated, increase speedy trials within the court system, and help family members so they aren’t needlessly taxed for posting bail when a defendant makes all their court appearances.”
According to Mark-Viverito, the legislative package aims to achieve the following:
DOC uniforms, prejudice in court and inmate release: The proposed law would ensure that inmates are produced at court appearances in their personal clothing, as opposed to a DOC uniform.
Within the past year, Mark-Viverito noted, DOC has begun housing inmates in agency-issued uniforms to help stem gang violence. The Council, Mark-Viverito said, continues to support the uniform policy within DOC correctional facilities.
The policy is supposed to be that inmates are not produced in court in a uniform if they are on trial or testifying before the grand jury. However, advocates have reported that inmates testify in grand jury appearances in DOC uniforms. Mark-Viverito said this is unfair to the inmates, the vast majority of whom are forced to testify in a DOC uniform “solely because they are too poor to afford bail.”
In recent years, the Obama administration, on many fronts, has sought to expose the bail system, warts and all. The Department of Justice has asserted that fixed bail schedules are unconstitutional because they don’t take into consideration the ability of the defendant to pay.
“Many jurisdictions still maintain bail systems that incarcerate people without regard for indigency,” wrote DOJ Civil Rights Division attorneys in an amicus brief in August. “But…the Department is working with state and local courts to reform their systems and promote constitutional bail practices.”
Court appearances and efficient judicial processes: The proposed legislation would ensure that DOC transports inmates to all of their criminal court appearances. Currently DOC ensures that inmates make court appearances for the offense they are in custody for, but not other court dates they may have for unrelated cases. This causes “a massive amount of delay within the court system,” Mark-Viverito said, and may affect speedy trial. Also, inmates may miss out on jail time credit to which they are entitled, and spend more time in custody because of this.
Restitution of bail fees: The proposed legislation would ensure that the City returns the 3 percent bail fee it collects when an inmate makes their court appearances. Currently the City collects a 3 percent fee for processing cash bail. If someone makes their court appearances, the fee is returned to those who posted the bail, except in the case where an individual is convicted of any offense, including non-criminal offenses. Those posting bail (most often family members) should not have to pay a fee if an individual shows up in court – “which is what bail is meant to ensure,” the Speaker noted.