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With more rollbacks looming, how New York's bail reform has evolved

Bail reform protestors fill the Million Dollar Staircase at the NYS Capitol in Albany, bearing signs
Brian Mann/North Country Public Radio
Civil rights and criminal justice reform groups gathered in Albany in January 2020 to support bail reform measures approved last year.

It’s been more than two years since New York made sweeping changes to its criminal justice system. People who are arrested for most crimes no longer have to pay bail to get out of jail while awaiting trial.

But bail reform is still highly contentious in New York. Republicans, and even some top Democrats, now want to pass rollbacks due to the recent rise in violent crime. What actually happened these last two years?

Criminal justice advocates called it a historic victory. Democrats described it as groundbreaking. On Jan. 1 of 2020, New York State ended cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.

“This bill was so important,” State Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez said on the steps of the capitol just weeks after the reforms went into effect. “We have finally come to a point that we’re making everything we wanted possible and this is something we fought too hard to even look back for a second. We have to fight back and keep moving forward.”

The impacts of bail reform

That fight had real and immediate impacts, especially for low-income folks and people of color, who have historically spent more time in jail because they couldn't afford bail.

In the first year of the reforms, New York’s jail population dropped by more than 30%. That’s thousands of people out on pretrial release, people still presumed innocent.

Marvin Mayfield, with the Center for Community Alternatives, speaks at a rally against Gov. Karen Hochul's proposed bail reform changes.
Karen DeWitt/NYS Public Radio
Marvin Mayfield, with the Center for Community Alternatives, speaks at a rally against Gov. Karen Hochul's proposed bail reform changes. Photo: Karen DeWitt

“People who get to be home with their children, people who get to keep their housing, people who get to keep their jobs," said civil rights attorney M.K. Kaishian.

Kaishian said bail reform has been transformative for so many New Yorkers.

“And in other ways, just not experience the destabilization and potential death they would encounter in jail are the results of bail reform,” said the attorney with the advocacy group Zealous.

And a vast majority of those people are not getting rearrested for violent crimes. According to an analysis by the Albany Times Union, just 2% of people released because of bail reform went on to commit a violent felony.

Jullian Harris-Calvin is a former public defender who now works for the Vera Institute of Justice.

Rising crime in New York

“So it means that bail reform did not cause an uptick in folks rearrested simply
because they were released prior to trial because of bail reform,” he said.

But there has been an uptick in certain kinds of crimes in the last few years, particularly shootings and homicides. Sheriffs in upstate counties like Cayuga, Oneida and Washington have all pointed to the recent rise in violent crime as a reason to roll back bail reform.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, along with other Republican lawmakers and law enforcement leaders, said New York's bail reform laws need changes at the state Capitol on March 28, 2022. Photo: Karen DeWitt
Karen DeWitt
Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt of North Tonawanda , along with other Republican lawmakers and law enforcement leaders, said New York's bail reform laws need changes at the state Capitol on March 28, 2022

State Assemblymember Matt Simpson represents Essex, Warren and parts of Saratoga county. Two of his nephews were recently victims of crime.

“What are the odds of one family being impacted by two separate instances of robberies in the North Country?” Simpson asked.

The odds actually went down in Warren County after bail reform. Violent crimes dropped there by 8% from 2019 to 2020. But in Saratoga County, there was a 10% uptick.

The trend is a lot clearer in New York City, where murders rose by more than 40% in just one year.That’s still well belowthe sky-high levels of the early 1990s, but Republicans are using the recent spike in homicides as a political lightning rod.

The messaging around bail reform

Simpson blamed state Democrats for the rise in violent crime.

“I think it’s attributed to the overall messaging coming out of Albany, that it’s pro-criminal, anti-law enforcement,” he said.

Voters in New York are largely buying that message from Republicans and police unions. According to a Siena poll released this week, nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers think the recent rise in crime is because of bail reform. Advocates and legal scholars say there’s not enough data to make that case.

Bail reform also coincided with the coronavirus pandemic, which left millions of people New Yorkers out of work and disproportionately hurt low-income families and people of color.

Rollbacks proposed by Republicans and Democrats

Still, Republicans continue to push for bail reforms rollbacks. Alison Esposito, who’s running for lieutenant governor, spoke at the Republican convention in February.

She and many others want judges to have more discretion to set bail.

“They need to be able to weigh dangerousness and past criminal records when they impose sentencing and bail,” Esposito said.

“Dangerousness is a racist standard and it’s an anti-poverty standard,” said Susan Bryant, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association. She said more discretion for judges would introduce more potential for race-based bias. But top Democrats, like New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul, support that move.

Gov. Kathy Hochul at a briefing.
Kevin Coughlin / Office of the Governor
Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of th
Gov. Kathy Hochul at a briefing.

Hochul also wants to reinstate bail for repeat offenders, hate crimes and more gun crimes.

“I feel very committed to making sure we ensure public safety for the state of New Yorkers, all New Yorkers deserve to be safe, as well as respecting the rights of individuals,” the governor told reporters last week.

Pretrial support for New Yorkers

Hochul has been criticized by both Democrats and Republicans for her proposed changesto bail reform. But criminal justice advocates say there is some good her plan.

Hochul wants to spend $10 million in pretrial services for things like mental health care and counseling, supportive housing, things that will help stabilize people’s lives while they await trial.

Harris-Calvin said while that’s a tiny fraction of what would be needed for the entire state, it’s a good start.

“There are so many ways to invest in supports that’s cheaper and more effective than jailing, but there are nuanced solutions to a nuanced problem and political soundbites are not conducive to nuance and that’s a big problem,” he said.

Regardless of what end up in the budget, both sides will likely keep fighting for more changes to how bail is handled in New York, whether it’s more rollbacks or more reforms.

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