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Wall Street church opposes cash bail

22 February 2019

Reformers say that the system discriminates against the poor and ethnic minorities


The Revd Winnie Varghese interviews Jonathan Lippman, a former New York State chief judge, about bail reform

The Revd Winnie Varghese interviews Jonathan Lippman, a former New York State chief judge, about bail reform

A WEALTHY church in New York has joined a campaign to end the system of cash bail which, reformers say, discriminates against the poor and ethnic minorities.

The church, Trinity, Wall Street, joined a mass bail-out campaign in the autumn in which supporters paid the bail money to release 105 women and teenagers who were being held in prison pending a court hearing.

In New York, those who cannot afford to pay bail are held on Rikers Island, in the middle of the city’s East River, while they await a hearing. The island’s eight facilities house about 8000 inmates, more than half of whom are black, and one third Hispanic.

The director of justice and reconciliation at Trinity, the Revd Winnie Varghese, said last week: “People can be held for $100 or $1000. . . Sometimes, bail prices are high due to discrimination and assumptions about race, and a high bail is created that a family can’t pay.

“The impact of just one night in jail can be horrible: they are such violent places. Part of our goal is to avoid even that first night.”

She said that the church was committed to supporting campaigns to reform the criminal justice system and “make it more humane”.

“We believe in confession and restoration, and that poverty is not a crime, and that there are ways to restore people’s lives.”

The money to bail out the 105 inmates was raised privately, but Ms Varghese was one of those from the church who went and submitted the paperwork and waited for the detainees to be released.

The church is backing a day of action at the end of this month to urge people to lobby their elected representatives to end the cash-bail system.

The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, brought forward a budget last month and plans to end cash bail and “eliminate racial disparities in pre-trial populations”.

The new legislation would also require police to rely on “tickets” — similar to speeding tickets — rather than arrests for low-level crimes, although prosecutors could request a hearing to determine whether a suspect was too much of a threat to be released while a case was pending.

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