It's time to take bail reform seriously

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

For the past 70 days Svetlana Zakharova, the Russian woman arrested in October for allegedly extorting money from former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, has been residing in the Rikers Island jail complex.

To date, it has cost New York City taxpayers $25,318 to feed, house and care for Zakharova, who made tabloid headlines for having a “relationship” with Spitzer.

Her 70-day tab is based on the daily, per-inmate spending at Rikers, roughly $362 according to New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, multiplied by 70, which totals $25,318. That’s about the price of admission, give or take a few thousand, for a semester in a New York private school or college.

Zakharova has not been accused of a violent crime. She is not considered to be violent or dangerous now. She can’t flee to Russia or any other country because the court has her passport. And, she’s likely eligible for supervised release.

So why is she in Rikers on the taxpayers’ dime?

Because she cannot pay the $1 million bail set by Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Charles Solomon who never explained why he set it so high (Note: $1 million bail is usually reserved for accused murderers). Zakharova’s case centers on alleged extortion – forcing Spitzer to pay her $400,000 over one year in exchange for not exposing their “relationship.”

Thankfully, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council are moving away from bail for non-violent offenders, though judges have the final say. While Solomon did not opine on the amount of bail, he did take the opportunity to say within earshot of the local media during Zakharova’s arraignment that he expected her to serve a prison term. The media dutifully reported the statement. So much for innocent until proven guilty.

While her $1 million bail is by no means normal, Zakharova is one in a long line of Americans, mostly people of color, who get stuck in jail for not having the money to make bail for non-violent offenses. Forced to wait in jail for their trials, they sometimes plead guilty just to get out. Research has shown people who can’t post bail are more likely to be convicted and with harsher sentences than people who do post bail.

Today about 94 percent of people in federal prison receive non-violent convictions, and the majority have incomes of less than $2,000 in the month prior to the arrest. About two-thirds of America’s jail population – 450,000 people – is in jail awaiting trial. Five out of six remain in jail until trial because they can’t afford bail or because a bail agent refused to post bond for them.

These individuals don’t just lose their freedom. They often lose their homes and jobs, which is especially painful if they are acquitted. Nobody helps them get back their lives.

African-American men, more than any group of people, find themselves unable to pay bail. On any given day, one in 10 African-American men in their 30s is in prison or jail. More African-American men are either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole, than the number of American slaves in 1850 before the Civil War.

One of those imprisoned African-American men was Kalief Browder. At 16, Kalief could not pay his $3,000 bail and spent three years at Rikers without being convicted of a crime. After being acquitted, he killed himself at the age of 22 as a result of the abuse he endured in jail. Kalief’s suicide drew outrage from New Yorkers, and beyond, leading to a series of reforms in New York City jails, including Rikers.

His death, though, was not in vain. Earlier this year, de Blasio announced a citywide expansion of supervised release for non-violent offenders, designed to reduce the number of defendants receiving bail. City judges can direct eligible, low-risk defendants to a supervisory program, allowing them to remain at home with their families and continue working while awaiting trial. The city also has established funds for non-violent offenders to draw from to make bail.

Washington, D.C. and California have put similar programs in place, and local officials in the District have reported positive results. About 85 percent of those arrested are released prior to their court date, 88 percent return to make all their court appearances and 97 percent finish the pretrial period without being arrested on a new felony charge. About 91 percent finish the program without being arrested on a new misdemeanor charge.

Hopefully, these reforms will catch on in other parts of the country. But they won’t come in time to help Svetlana Zakharova who, without my commenting on her guilt or innocence, seems to have gotten a raw deal from the judge, all at the expense of New York City taxpayers.

Karen Hinton is the Chief Strategy Officer at Fenton. One of her clients is JustLeadershipUSA, a criminal justice reform nonprofit.