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Local advocates want cash bail eliminated for low-level offenders

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
The Onondaha County Justice Center.

Local criminal justice advocates are trying to put pressure on Albany to reform the justice system. 

A local coalition is trying to build support for proposed legislation in Albany that, among other things, eliminates cash bail for misdemeanors or low-level felonies.  Syracuse attorney and activist Herve Comeau said the inequalities of the cash bail system really hit home for him last December.

“I was doing some outreach work at the justice center an there was a 17-year-old kid there,” Comeau said. “His bond amount was $250.  It was December 23.  His family couldn’t put it together to get him out for Christmas. That’s what’s happening locally.”

Comeau said requiring cash bail punishes the poor, who often cannot come up with the cash, and end up being incarcerated even though they have not been convicted of a crime.

“This adversarial system is particularly problematic,” Comeau said. “It gives rich folks an edge in the criminal justice system, and we should change that. We should be after the truth, but we also should be after rehabilitation, especially when it comes to children.”

Marsha Weissman, a policy fellow at the Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse, said it is not necessary to order bail for someone accused of a low-level offense.

"People are released right now under their own recognizance and they do return to court,” Weissman said. “We don’t have a large bail jumping problem.”

Advocates said it is an issue that overwhelmingly affects people of color. Proposed legislation in the state Senate would also overhaul speedy trial and discovery laws, which often leave individuals languishing in jail cells, as well as expand funds for legal defense.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.