Our stories are the rule – not the exception. It’s time for bail reform.

Photo of activists in New York who have advocated for bail reform under the hashtag #FreeNewYork, and at rallies like this one held in Albany in February 2018
Photo of activists in New York who have advocated for bail reform under the hashtag #FreeNewYork, and at rallies like this one held in Albany in February 2018
JustLeadership USA
Activists in New York have advocated for bail reform under the hashtag #FreeNewYork, and at rallies like this one held in Albany in February 2018

Our stories are the rule – not the exception. It’s time for bail reform.

That’s the Mother’s Day gift we need
May 11, 2018

When you’re victimized by the pretrial system, you’ve been charged, but not convicted of anything. You’re frantically trying to raise money to pay bail and get home. You’re desperately resisting pleading guilty to something you haven’t done. And all the while you’re locked away in a jail where violence and dehumanization are the norm – and your rights to be presumed innocent and to a fair and speedy trial, are just fantasies.

We know this is true, because we have both personally experienced this system up close. One of us spent months in the Westchester County jail for being unable to raise $2,500 to pay bail and await trial at home. Ultimately, innocence aside, a guilty plea seemed the fastest way to be be reunited with two young sons: one eight-and-a-half years old and the other only 11 months old. Our story also includes being forced to watch helplessly as a 27-year-old son diagnosed with schizophrenia was held in the Albany County jail for two-and-a-half months pretrial and separated from family and mental health services. He ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge and was released, but by then, his condition had already gotten much worse.

Our stories are the rule – not the exception. It’s time for reforms.

It is a fact that New York state’s pretrial “justice” system violates the basic human and constitutional rights of people who are forced into county jails strewn across the state.

For those of us swept up in this brutal system, the question that weighs most heavily is “When?” When will I get out of jail and see my children again? When will my son be released so he can have the medicine and support he needs?  

The trauma caused by the state’s unwillingness to address this jail crisis targets and disproportionately impacts Black people, Latinxs and working-class people.

Today, there are more than 25,000 men and women in county jails. Some 67 percent of them haven’t been convicted. They are there because they can’t afford bail.

They are likely to spend months, if not years, in limbo because case evidence can be kept secret by prosecutors, and the court system is overloaded with cases that don’t move forward.

We are experts in this system, inside and out. We have channeled our experiences into our commitment to bring about real change. We became activists in the #FREEnewyork campaign led by JustLeadershipUSA and VOCAL-NY. This campaign is dedicated to overhauling New York’s pretrial system.

We cheered in January when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his support for “sweeping reforms” to “overhaul antiquated laws governing bail, discovery and speedy trial," and promised that his budget proposal would be “the most progressive set of reforms in the nation.” But as the budget process moved forward, we saw huge gaps between the real pretrial overhaul we demanded and the governor’s proposals. They not only fell far short of the changes we need – in many ways they would harm the very people he claimed to be helping. But with the help of a bold and uncompromising grassroots campaign, we’ve made sure that pseudo-reforms cannot be passed off as real change, and that the strongest bail and discovery reform bills in the country are on the table in Albany.

The legislation supported by #FREEnewyork will give everyone a fair shot at justice and freedom.

The Bail Elimination Act of 2018  sponsored by state Senator Michael Gianaris and Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell will end New York’s discriminatory money bail system, protect due process and keep people in their homes instead of in jail. As Gianaris said in a Daily News article about the legislation: “Why do we make people pay to get out? We are literally taking lives away from people because they are not rich enough.”

Another proposal introduced by state senators Jamaal Bailey and Brian Benjamin and Assemblyman Michael Blake, will overhaul New York’s extremely unjust criminal discovery law which allows prosecutors to hold back evidence. This makes it impossible for people to prepare their cases and make informed decisions about whether to plead guilty or go to trial.

We’ve organized, demonstrated, and testified. We’ve won the support of many elected representatives. We are part of a growing grassroots movement and a campaign endorsed by more than 250 organizations and faith leaders from across the state.

This Mother’s Day, help us make sure no other mother has to endure the pain we have gone through: Give us an overhauled pretrial system and a  #FREEnewyork.

 Headshot of Priscilla Echi a mother, activist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and leader with the #FREEnewyork campaign.
Peggy Dennis
is a community leader at VOCAL-NY and based in Albany.
Illustration of woman
Priscilla Echi
is a mother, activist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and leader with the #FREEnewyork campaign.
20200329