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Top New York judge calls bail system unfair to poor

By Daniel Wiessner

ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has urged lawmakers to overhaul the state's bail laws, saying the current system was unfair to indigent defendants charged with low-level crimes.

During his annual State of the Judiciary speech, Lippman called for legislation that would authorize judges to consider public safety when deciding whether a defendant should be released or held on bail and create a statutory presumption that a person charged with a non-violent crime would be released, unless a prosecutor could show that the person was a flight risk or threat to public safety.

New York is one of only four states to prohibit judges from using public safety as a factor when making a bail determination, Lippman said On Tuesday.

Currently, he said, many non-violent defendants who do not pose a threat to the public languish in jail because they cannot afford bail.

"This makes no sense and certainly does not serve the best interests of our communities and our citizens," Lippman said during the speech, which he delivered at the Court of Appeals in Albany.

He also urged lawmakers to pass legislation permitting the use of cameras in state courtrooms.

Lippman's call for bail reform comes one week after the U.S. Conference of Chief Justices unanimously approved a resolution urging states to limit the use of pretrial detention to defendants who are considered flight risks or pose a threat to public safety.

Lippman said it was a "travesty" that, in many cases, a bail bondsman makes the final decision as to whether a defendant will be released, rather than judges or prosecutors. The legislation he proposed could render the bail bonds industry irrelevant, he said.

Lippman also said the legislature should expand the supervision of defendants who are released without bail. For instance, judges should be empowered to impose curfews or order defendants to undergo drug testing and treatment.

Steven Banks, the attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, said in an interview he supported Lippman's bail proposals. Many of Legal Aid's clients cannot afford even modest bail, and that being held in jail often has a negative impact on their cases, he said.

The chief judge on Tuesday also urged state lawmakers to pass legislation permitting the use of cameras in courtrooms. Currently, judges may only permit cameras in a case in which witnesses have not been ordered to testify. Lippman said he wants the law changed so that cameras would be allowed in most cases.

New York did have such a law, but it expired in 1997. Lippman said smartphones and other innovations have made it easy to record court proceedings and that allowing cameras in court would enhance transparency and help engage the public.

"It is vital that concerned citizens, bombarded with crime shows and court dramas that do not provide a reliable representation of the justice system, have the fullest access to the real thing," Lippman said.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta)

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