The cost of freedom: half of defendants not showing up to court when released on appearance tickets

Justice system is getting jammed
Posted at 5:54 PM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 18:28:22-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — “Bail reform shook the system.”

Samuel Davis is an attorney and of-counsel at The Dolce Firm.

He says he feels a connection with his African-American clients because of his own run-ins with the law early on in his life.

Davis feels reform to the bail system was necessary — and most members of law enforcement do, too.

“The last thing you want is somebody arrested on some non-violent property type crime, who's not a repeat criminal, and sitting in the holding center, because they can't come up with $1,000, or even $100,” said Buffalo Police Deputy Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia. “That’s just not necessary.”

But, Gramaglia said the reform to bail also unintentionally caused new problems with the criminal justice system and putting a strain on resources for police.

“We've seen repeatedly defendants arrested multiple times with pending gun cases where our officers are out there, putting their lives at risk, arresting individuals — violent felons with guns again and again.”

Gun defendants are his biggest gripe with the reform.

Prior to January 2020, judges typically used two forms of bail on a defendant: A or B.

“A” is a cash amount and “B” would be 10% of the amount for bond.

But, with bail reform, came “E” bond — an amount the judge can set as low as 1%

“The problem that we're seeing repeatedly is judges giving very low bail and in some cases, no bail,” said Gramaglia.

"So you have, you have a lot more individuals who have kind of like the mid-level, violent crimes: gun possession, the robberies, the burglaries…. all of them, where the judge is putting bail on someone using that third form of bail, and now they're out,” added Erie County District Attorney John Flynn, who has issues of his own with the new bail reform system.

It was a measure meant to help low-income or marginalized people, but Gramaglia feels there are certain crimes that should be qualifying offenses to set bail and aren’t.

If someone is arrested for having a loaded gun, they can’t be held according to the new laws.

“When they're picked up on that warrant, if it was a qualifying offense to begin with, they have to be released,” said Gramaglia. “The judge cannot set bail, they have to walk out the door.”

But DA Flynn said there’s not enough data in a year to definitively say people are committing crimes while released on an appearance ticket.

“The reality of the situation, okay, is that we, meaning the police, don't really know if it's a concern,” he said. “Because the majority… of the homicides, and the non-fatal shootings are unsolved. I don’t know who did it. So if the guy is out on bail and he did it I might not know.”

Flynn has a number of frustrations with the new bail reform system, mainly because it removes any opportunity for discretion.

Flynn tells our I-Team he implemented what he calls a “mini bail reform” out of his office years ago.

“I told all my assistant DAs, ‘Listen here, from now on, don't ask for bail on any misdemeanors or non violent felons, unless there's a darn good reason.’ And, the problem is now with the bail reform is that there's no longer that darn good reason “John Flynn” category.”

The DA also takes issue with the fact that people failing to appear is backing up the system and piling up the work for his office.

Our I-Team was able to obtain data on court “no-shows” in Erie County, but the information doesn’t include village or towns.

What it does show is nearly half of all defendants released on appearance tickets don’t show up to court on their scheduled date.

But, they still can’t be arrested.

They have to no show at least twice for a judge to be able to issue a warrant for their arrest — but that’s only at the judge’s discretion.

In 2020, a total of 4,347 people (in Erie County City and State courts) were issued appearance tickets.

1,339 of those people didn’t show up to the first court date, and a total of 570 warrants were issued that year for failure to appear on desk tickets.

We were not able to obtain data on failed second appearances.

But, even though a defendant may have a warrant for their arrest — it doesn’t mean police are going to be able to chase down that many people.

“We certainly don’t have the manpower to go out looking for every single warrant that’s been issued, you know, through Buffalo City Court,” said Gramaglia. “But, here are obviously certain levels of crimes, very higher level, violent crimes and things of that nature that we absolutely will send people out for.”

Attorney Sam Davis said most clients are wanting to come to court, which is the whole purpose of bail in the first place.

“The most serious crimes they usually involve people who want to control the situation,” he said. “Those are people who are coming to court, because those are people who feel they can control the narrative.”

Davis said bail reform is a good thing. So did Flynn. So did Gramaglia.

They all also agree, it could use some tweaks to make sure things continue moving through the justice system.