Erie County Legislature Becomes First County in New York State to Back Bail Reform

Modified: April 1, 2020 11:25am

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Friday, December 21, 2018

(Erie County, NY) - The Erie County Legislature today passed a resolution introduced by Erie County Legislature Majority Leader April N. M. Baskin in support of state legislation that would address cash bail and allow for options for judges to provide alleged low-level offenders with non-incarceration options while they wait for their trial.

Majority Leader Baskin has championed bail reform as part of her larger public safety reform agenda this year. The initial draft of her resolution calling on the state to act was clocked into the Legislature in February of 2018.

Since the resolution was introduced, the topic has been discussed in the Legislature’s Public Safety committee on four separate occasions, with expert testimony from the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo and the Partnership of the Public Good. Former Buffalo Bill Thurman Thomas appeared at last week’s meeting and gave an impassioned plea for criminal justice reform, citing the end of cash bail as an important step.

“For too long, too many people in our society and our community have faced the stigma and the financial challenge of being incarcerated for weeks or months awaiting trial on minor, petty, non-violent, low-level offenses,” said Majority Leader Baskin. “There are also serious costs borne by the taxpayers for housing detainees who could otherwise be at home and under supervision while awaiting their trial. Having to detain fewer low-level alleged offenders in the Holding Center will result in savings for the Sheriff’s Office, with reduced costs for food, clothing, and medical care.“

In 2017 the Partnership for Public Good conducted an analysis of bail in Erie County which found discrepancies and often higher bail amounts in Erie County and the City of Buffalo. Their study, released in 2018, observed 240 arraignment hearings before six Erie County judges. Among their findings:

Median bail amounts set by Erie County judges are higher than those set in New York City.

Judges imposed bail for minor violations such as disorderly conduct or traffic offenses, which, by comparison, rarely happens in New York City.

Defendants of color typically received the highest bail, with white defendants released without bail 17% more often than black defendants and 22% more often than Latinos.

Sam Magavern, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good, said, "Our current bail practices are punishing people for being poor. They are a major feeder for mass incarceration, and they lead to lost jobs, lost educational opportunities, and lost housing. This is one of the major civil rights issues of our time. There are much more efficient ways to make sure that people show up for their court dates, and we need to start using them."

“As a Legal Aid attorney in Buffalo City Court I know that the system of cash bail makes our criminal justice system inherently unfair to the poor,” said Rebecca Town, staff attorney with the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo.

“Standing shoulder to shoulder with our clients, we witness the negative effects of cash bail on our clients, their families and their communities every day. The majority of my clients who remain in custody waiting for their day in court are there because they cannot make the cash bail set at arraignment. The idea that anyone should be incarcerated merely because they are poor is offensive to American values.”

Said Legislator Baskin, “Those who have to wait in jail because they cannot afford bail often end up losing their jobs, falling behind on their bills and may even have their property repossessed - making them face even more financial hardships than they did before they couldn’t afford their bail. This has even led some innocent people to accept bad plea bargains just so they can be released from jail and get back to their everyday lives.”

Copies of the resolution will be issued to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, members of the Western New York delegation of the New York State Legislature and officials from the Office of Court Administration and the 8th Judicial District.