Chapter 1: The Punishing Price of NYC's Bail System

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Suspects are led into Brooklyn's criminal courthouse.

Photo by: Suspects are led into Brooklyn's criminal courthouse.

Suspects are led into Brooklyn's criminal courthouse.

In a basement in Queens on a gleaming July morning, the New York City criminal justice system turned its attention to one Eric T. This article won't use his last name because Eric says he lied to the judge when he made his plea—a plea of guilty.

The charge was possession of marijuana. It was not the first time Eric had faced a drug charge, but he says he had been out of trouble for a decade, until the evening this summer when Eric and a fellow student at their automotive repair school in Queens were taking a smoke break and the police rolled up. A search of the friend's car found some marijuana. Eric says it wasn't his. The friend says it wasn't Eric's. The court appointed lawyer who met Eric a few minutes before his arraignment told him the police report did not allege that Eric had any drugs on him, and advised his client to fight the charge.

But outside the lock-up, through the door and in Judge Ira Margulis' court room, many of those who were choosing to fight their relatively minor charges were facing the prospect of doing so behind bars. Sure, the judge was letting a good number of people out before tri al, ordering "release on recognizance," but in many cases he was setting bail, whether the charge was a felony or a misdemeanor. The bails were for the most part relatively small—$500 here, $1,500 there—but even that was too high for some to meet. One mother told her son's public defender that she could afford perhaps $200 to get him out on a misdemeanor drug possession charge; the prosecutor asked for $3,500, and the judge set bail at $1,500. A guy who turned down an offer of pleading guilty to a count of diverting prescription medications and being sentenced to the time he had already served had bail set at $1,500. Upstairs the inscription in the lobby quoted Disraeli: "Justice is truth in action." Down below in arraignment court, the price of freedom was somewhere between $500 and $50,000—cash or bond.

As any good lawyer would, Eric's defender laid out the stakes for his client. If Eric said he was guilty, he'd probably be sentenced only to the time he had already served since his arrest a day earlier. If he professed his innocence, it was likely bail would be set, and if Eric were unable to pay it, that could mean staying in jail until his next court date, five days away. In other words, saying he did nothing wrong would earn him more jail time than if he claimed he'd broken the law.

With work, school and a family to think about, Eric couldn't do that kind of time. His lawyer told the judge Eric wanted to plead guilty, and Margulis began the allocution, where he asks the defendant to admit to specific allegations, like, "Was it true that you were in possession of marijuana?"

"I didn't possess anything," Eric answered.

Margulis looked up. "Then I can't accept your plea," he said.

"OK. I possessed it," Eric shot back. "I have nothing to say. I just want this over with." His lawyer jumped in: "I've counseled [Eric] not to plead guilty to this. His concern is whether bail will be set."

Margulis wouldn't say. So Eric shook his head, barked "OK, I possessed it," and stepped out of the courtroom with a $160 court fee to pay, a six-month license suspension in his pocket and a Class B misdemeanor conviction on his criminal record that could disqualify him from having several types of jobs, obtaining certain government benefits and—at the very least—being able to claim ever again that he'd been out of trouble since 1997.

"I would have fought it," Eric said a couple weeks later. "It was just a matter of, I didn't want them to set a bail that I couldn't make there on the spot." He had about $120 on him. His fianc