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Against NYC crime spike, comptroller says bail reform isn’t to blame

New York City’s comptroller pointed Tuesday to jailing data that shows essentially no change in the share of people rearrested post-release before and after the implementation of bail reform.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Two years ago, New York joined an increasing number of states moving away from the use of cash bail for criminal defendants. Critics warned that the move would lead to an increase of dangerous people being released to commit more crimes.

The New York City Comptroller’s Office threw water on such predictions, however, with a report Tuesday. It says scaling back the reforms of 2019 would primarily serve to extract more money from poor and vulnerable communities while growing the number of people held in city jails awaiting trial. There is no evidence, however, that such rollbacks would reduce crime.

Since state bail reforms took effect, the comptroller found, the number of people subject to bail has significantly declined. In calendar year 2021, judges set bail in 14,545 cases, down significantly from 24,657 in 2019.

Effective Jan. 1, 2020, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a program that slashed the state’s cash-bail requirement in about 90% of cases, excluding certain violent felonies like domestic or sex abuse. Instead of paying to walk free, the accused will merely receive an appearance ticket. Judges will have to order the least restrictive conditions necessary, as long as defendants continue to come to court.

Judges are limited now to considering risk of flight, and not how dangerous they think the defendant might be.

According to the report, even though the reforms included new requirements for judges to consider a person’s ability to pay when setting bail, average bail amounts have risen, not fallen, and people continue to be unable to afford the price of their freedom.

“In 2021, the average cash bail amount set at arraignment was $38,866, double the $19,162 average in 2019,” the report states. “While increases in average bail amounts likely stem from broad restrictions on setting bail for lower-level charges, bail law explicitly requires judges to consider the defendant’s financial circumstances.”

Poor Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are disproportionately affected by the cash bail system, while wealthier people accused of crimes can afford to await trial in home confinement or under other restrictions.

States including New Jersey, California, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Alaska, each had passed similar bail reforms before New York’s took effect.

"In a moment of real anxiety about public safety, the conversation on bail reform has become divorced from the data, which shows essentially no change in the share of people rearrested while released pretrial before and after the implementation of the 2019 bail reforms,” Comptroller Brad Lander said on Tuesday, announcing the report's findings. “Instead, what we see is a rise in average bail amounts and a continuation of bail-setting practices that extract money from families and deny freedom to people who are presumed innocent before trial.

“We should follow the facts rather than fear, and reject reactive efforts to roll back reforms that threaten the progress we have made towards more equal justice,” he added.

The legislation passed in April 2019 by a newly elected Democratic majority in the state legislature has been hotly contested by law enforcement officers as well as some lawmakers, mayors and prosecutors.

U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, the Republican Party's 2022 nominee for governor, has long criticized the bail reforms and continues to campaign on the repeal of cashless bail amid purported skyrocketing crime.

“Instead of handcuffing our criminals we’re handcuffing justice, we’re handcuffing our judges, we’re handcuffing police, we’re cuffing law abiding New Yorkers,” the Long Island-based Zeldin said in February announcement of his "Secure Our Streets" state safety plan to drastically roll back bail reforms. “In order to secure our streets, we have to put community first and foremost — way over criminals,” he said.

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a progressive Democratic gubernatorial candidate and longtime ally of comptroller Lander, urged state lawmakers on Tuesday not to reinstate old bail standards due to fearmongering over rising crime.

“The real and concerning rise in some crimes is a not a reason to return to the harmful, unjust, failed policies of the past, which have already failed both here and in cities across the country,” he said wrote in a statement. “As the comptroller's report today makes clear, calls to do so are divorced from the data, and ignore the both harm that these laws were created to prevent and the history our country has of instituting, then apologizing for, unjust systems of criminalization."

Marie Ndiaye, supervising attorney of the Decarceration Project at the Legal Aid Society, similarly pleaded to state legislature to reject any efforts from current Governor Kathy Hochul to roll bock bail reforms already in place.

 “Bail reform has been widely successful, allowing our clients to stay in their communities with their families with no measurable impact on public safety,” Ndiaye wrote in a statement last week. “The data on bail reform speaks for itself: the overwhelmingly majority of New Yorkers on pretrial release do not commit new crimes and return for court future appearances.”

In an appearance of WNYC radio Tuesday morning,  Errol Louis, political anchor of Spectrum NY1 News and host of “Inside City Hall”, observed that other major cities without bail reform like Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago have also seen crime spike during the two years coinciding with the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Earlier this month, the NYPD reported that, for the month of February 2022, the city saw a nearly 60% increase in overall index crime compared to February 2021.

Washington, D.C., pioneered the end of cash bail in 1992. Maine passed similar legislation last year for nonviolent misdemeanors and violations. An Illinois law eliminating cash bail and setting strict rules for ordering detention goes into effect in January 2023.

California’s 2018 law eliminating cash bail was blocked from taking effect by a 2020 referendum backed by the state’s bail bond industry, and cash bail remains in effect in the nation’s most populous state. Utah passed reforms in October 2020 meant to reduce reliance on cash bail, but repealed them months later after some lawmakers and sheriffs protested.

The city comptroller’s analysis, based on data from the city and the nonprofit New York City Criminal Justice Agency, found that rearrest rates in the city haven’t changed much since the reforms. In 2021, an average of about 45,400 people were on pretrial release in New York City in any given month. Of those, an average of just under 1,900 were rearrested, or about 4% according to the agency’s data. In 2019, an average of around 53,300 were on pretrial release in any given month. Of those, an average of less than 2,300 were re-arrested, or about 4.3%. Since the reforms, fewer people are getting held on bail pending trial.

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