In Court: Watching Bail and Injustice


Laurie says:

My brother Mike does ongoing serious work on issues of incarceration and I asked him to write this post for Body Impolitic.

21 year old Shahiem Winbush of Bushwick NY, charged with felony assault with bail set at $25,000. His case was dropped 8 months later by the Court for lack of ANY evidence.

Michael Edison says:

Once a week I sit in Manhattan Criminal Court for four hours and watch the parade of Black and Latino men and women get arraigned for misdemeanors and felonies (90 percent are Black and Latino; 90 percent of the judges, defense lawyers and ADAs are White). An organization called Court Watch is trying to document what happens in court, particularly with bail to Latino and Black men and women. They hope to bring to light, through verified statistics, the oppression of the poor and disenfranchised in America.

Bail, for the poor, is really just the criminalization of poverty. A $5,000 bail or bond demand from a judge, to someone who hardly makes enough to survive, is more than the million dollar bail set for Harvey Weinstein. Harvey Weinstein had the million to put up, while thousands don’t have the $500 necessary for a bail bondsman to get out of Rikers Island (a notorious jail in NYC). Bail is supposed to assure that a person charged with a crime returns to Court for their trail. By law, their means are supposed to taken into consideration. But in America it is a form of punishment, jailing people for the crime of being too poor to pay.

I helped a young man raise bail for a crime he didn’t commit. His bail was $25,000, arbitrarily set by some judge in Brooklyn. He has no criminal record. He was charged with assault, but he was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time and Black. His mother is on food stamps and is raising two children, and didn’t have subway fare to bail him out (literally), let alone $2,500 for a bail bondsman. His trial kept getting delayed because the DA could not produce the evidence of his crime (because there was none), and finally 8 months later the case was dropped, and he was set free. He would have spent 8 months in jail for a crime he didn’t do for the crime of being too poor to raise bail.

Kalief Browder, a 16 year old Black boy, was sent to Rikers Island accused of stealing a backpack. He didn’t commit the crime, and refused a plea offer (most poor men and women accept the plea to get out of jail, something that ruins their life because they can’t live in public housing, nor get a decent job with a criminal history…a true Hobson’s choice). Kalief sat in prison for 3 years awaiting trial. And finally when his situation was brought to light, he was released because the police had no proof of his crime. Like Shahiem, he was guilty of being Black and poor. Kalief committed suicide when he was released, because the horrors of his 3 years in Rikers, where he was raped, beaten by gangs, and emotionally overwhelmed by his treatment by the guards.

While no white collar criminal was ever prosecuted for nearly ruining the American economy with their greed in 2008 (and for the most part for various illegal acts today), Black and Latino men and women are arrested every day for seemingly minor offenses and put into America’s prison-industrial complex. NYC still has, despite statements to the contrary, stop and frisk. A young Black or Latino woman stopped while carrying three condoms can be charged with prostitution. It is considered prima facie evidence of prostitution in NY State (that is changing, thank God, on Aug 1, 2018). A young male with a small amount of pot, found while frisked, for the crime of being Black, goes into the system. Can’t afford bail? Then it’s Rikers. They have a choice to plea down and have a criminal record, or await trial for 6 to months to a year in prison if they can’t afford bail.

The Harvey Weinstein’s of the world get a “Get out of Jail Free” card because of wealth; the poor men and women of America get prison, their rights revoked, and lives ruined for the crime of being Latino or Black and/or poor.