Press Releases

Tackling Mass Incarceration Locally: New York as a Model for Reform – New York City Bar Association Releases Mass Incarceration Report

With prospects for reducing mass incarceration on the national level uncertain—specifically, with “considerable uncertainty about whether successful past initiatives will be carried forward by the Trump administration”—the New York City Bar Association has released a report emphasizing the progress that can be made on the local level and highlighting “New York as a model for reform.”

The report, by the City Bar’s Task Force on Mass Incarceration, describes how New York City and New York State have succeeded in decreasing the rate of incarceration through a variety of policies, and puts forth recommendations on how to continue the momentum and bring about even greater reform, while still preserving public safety and keeping crime low.

“Because the vast majority of incarcerated persons are in state prisons and local jails, an enormous amount can be accomplished in our own backyards,” said John F. Savarese, Chair of the Task Force. “Considering the state of our national politics, in the area of mass incarceration the focus may need to be local.”

City Bar President John S. Kiernan said, “New York State and City policymakers are focusing on mass incarceration and prison reform with an intensity and openness to change not seen in decades. The New York City Bar Association hopes that this report is viewed as an important and timely contribution to the discussion.”

According to the report, New York State had the 12th lowest incarceration rate in the country in 2015, and New York City continues to have the lowest incarceration rate of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. The City’s jail population has dropped by half in the last 20 years and by 14% in the past two years. The City also has the highest rate of those released on recognizance at arraignment in the nation (70%), and the majority of those released on bail generally post bail within one week. Notably, during the period in which jail and prison populations have decreased dramatically, New York City has also experienced an unprecedented reduction in crime.

The report touts New York City as having one of the most robust alternatives-to-incarceration programs in the country, which provides post-sentencing diversion options for thousands of otherwise jail-bound individuals. Upcoming initiatives include an expansion of supervised release, the expansion of bail funds for those detained on misdemeanors with bails of less than $2,000, and a revision of the City’s failure-to-appear tool to increase the number of individuals released on recognizance. An online bail payment system holds promise for reducing incarceration as well.

The City is also focusing on reducing case delay in an effort to reduce the amount of time people spend in the City’s jails through a partnership with the courts, district attorneys, the defense bar, and the Department of Correction. Thus far, this effort is showing encouraging results across boroughs.

New York City has also taken steps to reduce the number of people who spend time in jail for low-level offenses. A set of eight bills (collectively, the “Criminal Justice Reform Act”) are designed to address the huge number of criminal summonses issued each year, by permitting the New York Police Department to issue civil, rather than criminal, summonses.

While much progress has been made in New York, the report urges further reforms. One would involve state lawmakers adding a new subsection to CPL 440.20 (governing motions to set aside a sentence) that would allow an individual under certain circumstances to petition the original sentencing judge to request that his or her sentence be reduced or modified on the ground that the sentence is excessive. The report also advocates the development of a means to trigger automatic sentence reductions—beyond the current merit and good time programs—based on an individual’s conduct while incarcerated. 

The report also calls for further reforms to the bail system so “New Yorkers who have not been convicted of any crime are [not] jailed simply because they are too poor to pay bail.” And, with New York being one of only two states that automatically prosecutes all 16 and 17-year-olds as adults, raise-the-age reform must be addressed. To address recidivism, the report calls for legislation to reduce the collateral consequences of convictions. This includes legislation to seal or expunge criminal records in certain circumstances, and to “ban the box” statewide, i.e., make it unlawful for prospective employers to ask about an applicant’s criminal record before offering a job.

The report concludes with a plea for bipartisanship on the national level, particularly when it comes to much-needed federal sentencing reform: “Notwithstanding discouraging signals from the campaign trail that may portend a return to reflexive over-reliance upon incarceration, along with its attendant enormous costs and harmful social consequences, we remain hopeful that President-elect Trump and the newly constituted Congress will continue to build on bi-partisan initiatives to address the problem of mass incarceration….As the new administration grapples with these important issues for the first time, however, achieving progress at the state and local levels may become more crucial than ever. We urge all of our elected leaders in the strongest possible terms to sustain the momentum for meaningful reform in the coming year.”

The report is available here: