With “law and order” seemingly on every politician’s lips these days, it’s inevitable that bail reform would be rearing its head three weeks before Election Day.
On Monday, a state senator, a candidate for state Assembly and a town supervisor were joined by retired law enforcement people in western New York to rant and rave about the need to repeal the reforms.
They used the usual scare tactics to make it appear that the state’s prison gates are swinging open to let murderers and rapists back onto the streets. (They’re not.)
They’re saying communities are now unsafe because of the reforms. (They’re not.) They’re saying the reform law has been an absolute disaster. (It hasn’t.)
And they want the Legislature to repeal it.
We’ve been no fan of the original law, which was passed in haste without being fully vetted with law enforcement professionals on both sides of the debate.
It did indeed eliminate cash bail for many crimes, including some crimes that resulted in some dangerous criminals being turned back onto the streets. Subsequent amendments made to the law restored some crimes to the bail requirement, helping correct some of its flaws.
Even with the changes, the law is still far from perfect. But to say it is an absolute disaster that needs to be fully repealed is alarmist and ignorant.
The original intent of the reforms was to prevent suspects from being held in jail for minor offenses and non-violent crimes due to their inability to post even modest cash bail.
There were reported cases of defendants for crimes like shoplifting and minor parole violations spending months or years in jail awaiting trial for lack of bail.
The old cash bail law disproportionately targeted indigent and minority defendants, while those with the financial means to post bail for the same or more serious crimes could pay their way to freedom.
It would be a tragedy to completely discard these reforms, flawed as they are, and risk going back to the old system.
The solution is not to outright repeal the reforms, but to fix them the right way.
That means when lawmakers return to Albany in January, they need to host hearings on the reforms — inviting law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, criminal justice advocates, judges, bail-bond companies and others to get their perspective. These hearings should be followed by committee meetings that result in recommendations for making the law better.
Bail reform hasn’t been perfect. Far from it. But it’s not a disaster either. New York’s bail system needed reforming.
Done properly, New York can achieve legislation that fulfills the goals of the original reforms – fairness in the justice system and safety of the citizens.