Earlier this week, 15 of the country’s most progressive prosecutors co-signed a letter urging New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to overhaul the state’s current detention policy by abolishing pretrial cash bail.
The letter, sent to Albany on March 6, was signed by some of the country’s most prominent reform-minded prosecutors, including St. Louis County’s Wesley Bell, Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, Chicago’s Kim Foxx and Portsmouth, Va.’s Stephanie Morales. In it, attorneys urged Cuomo and leaders in New York’s state legislature to end money bail, and instead, operate on “a presumption that people should be released pretrial for all but the most serious offenses.”
“We support ending money bail because safety, not wealth, should be the defining feature of the pretrial justice system,” the letter read.
Cash bail is the money defendants have to pay in order to be released from jail. Often, the money is repaid once they make their first court appearance—but this could take months. The practice has come under increased scrutiny and criticism in recent years, and several states have moved away from it (Washington D.C. was a trailblazer, doing away with pretrial cash bail in 1992).
The letter laid out the arguments frequently made for abolishing extended pretrial incarceration, which some studies show actually increase the likelihood of recidivism. In reforming cash bail, lawmakers could make New York a safer state, the prosecutors argued.
“Jails across New York frequently are over-capacity, and they are filled with people who do not need to be there. This is not simply an injustice to the person needlessly detained, but a threat to public safety,” the letter stated.
“Research shows that people who spend even a short period in jail, as opposed to being released pretrial, are more likely to commit a future crime. This makes sense. Jail is traumatizing. Jobs are lost. Families can’t pay rent. For reasons big and small, people who are away from their family, their job, and their community become more vulnerable and less stable. That makes all of us less safe.”
Speaking to The Root via phone, Stephanie Morales said it was important to show support for systemic change, even if it didn’t affect her constituents.
“Prosecutors and everybody involved in the criminal justice system who want reform should not be looking to be on an island and just taking unilateral action to work through this problem,” Morales said. “I think we should all be seeking systemic change however we can.”
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell pointed to Missouri’s own fight to reform the criminal justice system, citing a recent state supreme court ruling which favored “non-monetary conditions of relief” for pretrial defendants.
“Modern day debtor’s prisons exist across America and the cash bail system continues to be one of the drivers in this unjust system,” Bell told The Root in an e-mailed statement. “I hope the state of New York acts in the best interest of its citizens and passes legislation to end the injustices of cash bail.”
The New York State legislature is currently debating a comprehensive criminal justice reform package, of which bail reform remains a sticking point. Governor Cuomo is a proponent of ending cash bail, making it the centerpiece of his criminal justice agenda following his re-election last year. Last week, budget director Robert Mujica released a statement saying the governor will not pass a budget unless it includes bail reform.
Notably, only three New York prosecutors signed the letter—Eric Gonzalez of Brooklyn, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, and Eric Soraes of Albany County.
Correction: Monday, March 11, 2019, 9:45 a.m. EDT: An earlier version of this story said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance had not signed the letter. Vance added his signature Wednesday night after the first iteration of the letter was released. The article has been updated to reflect Vance’s co-sign. Governor Cuomo’s support for cash bail reform has also been clarified.