Clang for a Buck: The Curious Case of Dollar Bails

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The price of freedom (sometimes).

Photo by: Verustung

The price of freedom (sometimes).

Sometimes when a criminal defendant is facing two sets of charges, bail in the less serious case will be set at $1. This is done when a high bail or remand on the more serious charge is keeping him in jail. It can also happen when a defendant is a possible parole or immigration violator and must be held until those matters are cleared up, regardless of what happens in his criminal case.

To take an example, let’s say you’re busted for assault, bail is set at $5,000 and you can’t make it, so you relocate to Rikers. While on Rikers, you get into a tussle with a guard and she hauls you in for “obstructing governmental administration.” The judge would release you pending trial, except you’re already stuck on Rikers for the assault case. Your lawyer asks for a dollar bail on the “obstructing” charge, so that if you’re found guilty on that charge and sentenced to a few days in jail, you’ll get credit for having already served that time sitting on Rikers awaiting trial on the assault.

Suddenly the assault case gets dismissed. You should be able to fight the obstruction charge from the outside. You start packing, when somebody breaks the bad news: You’ve got a dollar bail set on you, and no one has paid it.

It sounds crazy, and it’s very rare, but it happens. “One client, it was a month before he finally got through to me. ‘I’m still in jail,’ he says. I’m like, ‘What?!'” recalls public defender Matthew Knecht. “A lot of people are getting held for significant periods of time—at least a few weeks—on a dollar bail.”

The Department of Correction says it allows church groups and corrections officers to bail out people for a buck. But there are no guarantees that will happen.

A recent CJA survey found that dollar bail was set in 1 percent of felony cases and 6 percent of non-felonies. It is unclear, however, whether that was the sole bail holding each defendant.