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EDITORIAL | How to end bail: The death of Layleen Polanco underlines the injustice of asking people to put up cash to pay for their freedom


Dead for lack of $500?

There is much we must learn about the death this month of Layleen Polanco on Rikers Island:

Whether the 27-year-old transgender woman was properly placed in a restrictive housing unit. Whether she got proper medical care there. What precisely caused her demise.

What we can say with confidence is that Polanco, arrested for missing court dates stemming from prostitution charges, shouldn’t have been jailed at all. The system of cash bail, whereby people of means can buy their freedom pretrial while poor people get locked up, is a moral outrage that must end once and for all.

Polanco lost her freedom for want of $500.

State legislators had a bite at the apple. In reforms passed in this year’s budget, they and Gov. Cuomo kept cash bail for violent felonies and other crimes while requiring mandatory release for all other offenses.

This kept some unjust features of the bad old system — wealthy accused rapists and murderers may still be able to buy their way out of Rikers, while poor ones cannot — while denying judges necessary flexibility to order truly dangerous individuals, and those who are flight risks, held.

A far better solution is nixing bail across the board, replacing it with a system that releases most defendants while giving judges the discretion to order the few held.

Even the flawed fix that will become law on Jan. 1 will save future Layleen Polancos. But the right way to safeguard the rights of the accused while protecting the city is to end cash bail, permitting judicial remand, for all offenses.