By Victoria Merlino
A stunning bail system failure helped initiate a slate of jail reform bills signed into law Tuesday — though they came a few years too late for one Rikers detainee.
The new laws, introduced by District 24 Council Member Rory Lancman, will require bail bond agents to be more transparent when it comes to seeking compensation and filing complaints and will force each bail bondsman to display a consumer bill of rights inside their shops.
“Today New York City takes a meaningful step forward towards treating bail bonds as the dangerous consumer financial products they have always been,” Lancman said. “The city must do everything in its power to ensure that bail bond businesses follow the rules the state has already laid out.”
A different bill will require the Department of Corrections to file a report on the use of Tasers in the system. Another will enable Rikers detainees to make free telephone calls starting in nine months.
The bail regulations could have the most far-reaching consequences, however.
“For far too long, New Yorkers have turned to the bail bond industry, which has a history of exploiting those who are economically disadvantaged and coming to them during a time of need,” said NYC Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Lorelei Salas. “Earlier this year, we took action against bail bond agent Marvin Morgan for engaging in deceptive and unlawful trade practices.”
But the reforms come too late for Aitabdellah Salem, a Queens resident who was arrested and sent to Rikers Island in 2014 for shoplifting and assault after a subsequent tussle with a police officer. Though the judge had originally set his bail at $50,000 based on a previous assault charge, the bail soon dropped to $1.
That should have been good news for Salem — except nobody told him about the bail adjustment.
He spent five months in Rikers until a jail chaplain learned about the paltry bail total and paid for him.
Salem eventually decided to sue the city, charging that public defenders failed to notify him of the change and DOC staff failed to bring him to his court appearance. Last week, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge threw out the case, ruling that the handling of his case and his lengthened time in prison did not violate his due-process rights.
“I just can’t believe you can hold a guy for $1 bail,” Welton Wisham, Salam’s attorney, told the Daily News. “But according to this judge, it’s OK.”