New Report Examines Alternatives to Cash Bail in the New York City Court System

New York, NY—On any given day in New York City, more than 7,000 people are detained in jail awaiting trial because they are too poor to make bail. Under New York law, judges may choose to set bail from among nine different forms if they find that some amount of money is necessary to guarantee a person’s future appearance in court. Despite these options, by default judges set the two forms of bail that are most financially onerous—the payment of a full cash amount to the court or a nonrefundable 10 percent deposit to a for-profit bail bond company. 

But what happens when judges choose alternative—and less onerous—forms of bail? A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice seeks to answer this question. Against the Odds: Experimenting with Alternative Forms of Bail in New York City’s Criminal Courts documents the outcomes of 99 cases in which two of these alternatives—partially secured and unsecured bonds—were set. The results of the experiment suggest that New Yorkers do not need to have large sums of money on the line to minimize failure to appear in court or to safeguard public safety pending trial. Expanding the use of alternative forms of bail will offer more New Yorkers the opportunity to await trial without the harm to employment, housing, family, and overall stability that comes from pretrial detention. 

“The findings described in this report tell an important story about the possibility of culture change in the use of bail in the city’s criminal courts, and demonstrate the potential of alternative forms of bail to serve as one more tool to make the current bail system fairer,” said Insha Rahman, a senior planner at Vera and author of the report. “We hope this report contributes to the growing knowledge about alternatives to traditional bail and reinforces what recent research demonstrates all too clearly—that money alone should not determine a person’s pretrial liberty.” 

 The project focused on partially secured and unsecured bonds—which, respectively, require payment to the court of a refundable 10 percent or less of the bail amount, or no upfront payment at all. Vera staff trained judges and defense attorneys on the procedures required to request and grant these bonds, identified 99 cases in which such bail was set, and analyzed the outcomes of those cases over a nine- to 12-month period. The analysis found that:

  • Sixty-eight percent of cases made bail and an additional 5 percent were released on recognizance.
  • Alternative forms of bail were not limited to low-level offenses, with 54 percent of cases carrying a top charge of a felony. Partially secured and unsecured bonds were granted on a wide range of cases running the gamut from drug possession, larceny, and robbery, to assault, criminal contempt, and weapons possession.
  • Those released had a combined court appearance rate of 88 percent and a rate of pretrial re-arrest for new felony offenses of 8 percent.
  • When released pretrial, the majority of cases resolved in a disposition less serious than the initial top charge at arraignment, with fully one-third ending in dismissal and another 20 percent ending in a non-criminal conviction.

The report also identifies some of the procedural challenges to setting alternative forms of bail and makes recommendations to improve their use. These include simplifying the necessary paperwork to set a partially secured or unsecured bond, educating the bar and bench about alternative forms of bail, requiring an alternative form of bail to be routinely set as an option in addition to traditional forms, and introducing an independent assessment of an individual’s ability to pay bail so that judges can tailor a bail decision to a person’s unique financial circumstances.

The full report can be found at