Assembly Speaker: Bail reform used as 'scapegoat' for rise in crime, data has no context
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie pushed back on claims Tuesday that the rise in violent crime in New York has been a result of the state’s bail reform law, which eliminated the option of cash bail for most lower-level and nonviolent charges two years ago.
Speaking to reporters in Albany, Heastie said the bail reform law was being used as a “scapegoat” for a national rise in crime and a spike in gun violence.
“Part of my frustration is that when anything bad that happens, it’s got to be bail reform’s fault,” Heastie said. “There’s a whole lot of things going on, and it’s so easy to scapegoat it onto bail.”
Opponents of the bail reform law, largely Republicans, have claimed that it’s connected to the state’s recent rise in violent crime. There hasn’t been any nonpartisan, critical analysis of that claim.
But Democrats are under new pressure to take a second look at the bail reform law this year after new New York City Mayor Eric Adams said this week that he wanted the Legislature to amend the statute.
Right now, the law requires judges to release defendants charged with most lower-level and nonviolent offenses under the lease restrictive means necessary and without cash bail. Adams, like others who’ve suggested tweaks to the law, wants the Legislature to give judges more discretion at arraignment over whether a defendant is released without bail, or kept in jail before their case is resolved.
But some of the lawmakers who were involved in the initial negotiations over the bail law three years ago, including Heastie, have said that idea could backfire. The intention of the bail law, they’ve said, was to remove discretion from judges who may, through implicit or realized bias, decide pretrial outcomes with a disproportionately negative impact on defendants of color.
Handing that discretion back to judges, who would then be tasked with assessing someone’s so-called “dangerousness,” or threat to public safety, could lead to the same disproportionate outcomes, Heastie said Tuesday.
“I think when you start putting back in people’s personal, judge's personal opinions, personal thoughts, when they look at an entire situation someone may have, you start to come back to possibly having some uneasiness,” Heastie said.
About 2% of those released after being charged with an offense that was previously bail-eligible were rearrested on a violent felony between July 2020 and June 2021, according to data released by the state last month. That data point has been used on both sides of the issue as a means to either support or oppose the bail reform law.
Heastie said, though, that the data doesn’t include context on what those outcomes were like before the state’s bail reform law was enacted. In other words, were defendants, out on bail, rearrested at the same rate before the law took effect.
“I can't imagine that 100% of people before we did bail reform didn't commit other crimes, because judges have let people out,” Heastie said. “Some people have paid bail and still have committed crime.”
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) has said there’s currently no appetite among a majority of members in her conference to make changes to the bail law.