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NY Republicans demand repeal of bail reform, offer anecdotes — not evidence — it’s behind increased crime

Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, calls for the repeal of the state's bail reform law Dec. 17, 2021, while standing outside the Erie County Sheriff's Office in downtown Buffalo.
Tom Dinki
Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, calls for the repeal of the state's bail reform law Dec. 17, 2021, while standing outside the Erie County Sheriff's Office in downtown Buffalo.

New York Republicans say bail reform is the cause of the state’s increase in crime, and that Democrats need to fix it when they head back to Albany next month.

GOP officials, gathered outside the Erie County Sheriff’s Office in downtown Buffalo Friday, urged the repeal of the bail reform law passed in 2019 that prohibits cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

“If you want to have your finger on the pulse of what New Yorkers want, that means that when you go back to Albany in just a couple of weeks, right at the top of your list of things to do should be to repeal cashless bail,” said Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, the presumptive GOP nominee for governor. “People are talking about the desire to support law enforcement more, not less. They want to feel safe, being able to walk their streets again.”

Democrats, who hold a majority in both the state Senate and Assembly, amended the bail reform law last year, after just three months of it being in effect, so that judges could have more opportunities to institute cash bail.

However, a GOP-backed bill introduced into the state Legislature last January would allow judges to institute cash bail on someone charged with a felony if they determine them to be a threat to the community. Judges would be able request a risk assessment from pretrial services to help them make their decision.

“I think the compromise is simple: We empower our judges to use their good judgment to help keep people safe,” said state Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, who introduced the bill. “And we have to insist that the dangerousness of the individual that's arrested is part of the equation, when the judges consider whether or not to release the individual.”

Overall violent crime in New York increased 0.7% in 2020, the first year bail reform was in effect. According to the FBI, the state’s violent crime rate went from 361 per 100,000 people in 2019, to 363.8 in 2020. Still, that was lower than the state’s crime rate in every year from 1985 to 2016.

The homicide rate increased significantly more, going from 2.9 in 2019 to 4.2 in 2020. That was the highest in a decade.

Although there have been instances of defendants committing crime after being released, and the law enforcement officials often publicize these incidents, it remains unclear whether bail reform measures are actually causing the uptick in crime.

A New York Post investigation found just one person charged with a shooting in New York City during the first six months of 2020 had been released under the bail reform law, despite the New York City Police Department commissioner claiming that bail reform played a role in the city’s rise in shootings.

A Loyola University study last year found only 3% of defendants released prior to their trial in Cook County in Illinois from 2017-19 were charged with a new violent offense.

WBFO asked GOP officials whether they could point to any studies or offer any other evidence that correlates bail reform with New York’s increased violent crime rate.

Gallivan responded but did not point to any evidence or studies. He instead offered anecdotes about defendants who have reoffended after being released on appearance tickets, including a man arrested for allegedly robbing four New York City banks, only to rob a fifth bank after being released.

“So what you have now out there essentially is a sense of lawlessness, because people have no fear of being caught, or if they're caught, they have no fear of being held accountable for their actions,” he said. “And who suffers? We all suffer.”

Violent crime and homicides increased nationwide last year, according to the FBI, including in states where bail reform measures have not been enacted.

Gallivan acknowledged that’s true, but said no state has seen a crime increase like New York has.

“New York has clearly surpassed everybody in the increase in violent crime shootings and homicides,” said Gallivan, who served as Erie County sheriff until 2005.

FBI statistics show New York’s violent crime and homicide rates in 2020 were still below the national average.

Still, Gov. Kathy Hochul may be open to further bail reform. While not revealing whether she’d personally like to see changes, Hochul said last month she’d work with the Legislature this upcoming session to see if part of the bail reform law should be amended.

When asked Thursday, Hochul would not offer any specifics on how bail reform might be reformed.

"Our main focus is public safety, protecting people where they live, and finding all of the opportunities to do that, and make sure it makes sense," she said.

The legislative session begins Jan. 5.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.