SCHENECTADY — Crime is up dramatically in Schenectady.
The question is: What exactly is driving the surge?
It’s a contentious question – in Schenectady and many other communities in New York state and nationwide.
“I think it’s fair to say that whenever crime goes up, we look closely at the data to see ‘why did it go up?'” Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford said during a Daily Gazette Editorial Board meeting with Schenectady administration officials this past week. “We also look at the environment to see if anything [has] changed.”
“At a certain point, there becomes a common denominator,” Clifford continued.
Index crimes including murder, rape, burglary, assault and motor vehicle theft between Jan. 1 and Oct. 16 were up 30.6% comparative with a five-year average, according the Schenectady Police Department. Such crimes were down 3.7% in 2021, 17.5% in 2020, and 15.7% in 2019.
While looking at “different things” causing city crime in sync with trends across the state, Clifford said, the department looks closely at bail reform — a controversial pre-trial detention overhaul dominating the headlines this election cycle. The widely believed policy link is in dispute, however. Republicans in all corners of the state are largely attributing the crime increase to bail reform and the state Democrats who ushered it in. But others say it’s not so simple.
Cash bail was originally eliminated for most non-violent offenses per provisions passed in a 2019 budget bill as a means of lifting racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system. Following early blowback from law enforcement, the law was retooled twice to expand judicial discretion and eligibility for pretrial detention.
Critics argue that the measure still suppresses law enforcement’s ability to incarcerate potentially dangerous offenders away from the public, risks flight and scares off witnesses from speaking up.
“We don’t have the ability to put anybody in lockup anymore so these are the things that we deal with on a daily basis that are a part of bail reform, the big package that I feel needs to be changed,” Clifford said. “We have to have the ability to hold somebody if they’re in a state of mind where they’re harmful to the community.”
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy chimed in.
“There’s a category of people, who yes, were being put in jail, who didn’t really need to be there or could have been dealt with in a different manner,” McCarthy said. “And now, as the chief points out, some of that discretion is gone and how do you bring that messaging back in how we want people to play by the rules?”
McCarthy, a Democrat, lauded Gov. Kathy Hochul for dialing the measure back earlier this year. It’ll be a challenge to muster a policy remedy that serves low-income communities of color and set an example for prospective offenders, the mayor said.
The city police station on Liberty Street has some holding cells for individuals when they’re first arrested in the city, while the county jail on Veeder Avenue holds individuals after they’ve been arraigned, when they’re waiting for their cases to be handled or after they’ve been sentenced to jail time. The jail averaged some 204 inmates per day this month, as of Friday.
During the onset of bail reform, jail numbers dropped 25% — 6% less than the total statewide in February of 2020. County Undersheriff Jim Barrett believes that the jail’s continuously low numbers early that year were probably due to limited social activity during the early onset of COVID-19 restrictions.
Addressing bail-reform changes of late, Barrett said, “It’s tough to draw a direct correlation” and a number of factors likely influence detainee rates.
Crime is a broad issue
Some controversial arrest cases occurred across the region in the wake of bail reform: a purse-snatcher was arrested in Schenectady County two days in a row; a manslaughter charge was upped to a second-degree murder within weeks of an Albany man’s release; a 77-year-old Gloversville man was killed a day after his assailant was arrested for assaulting another man.
Critics of bail reform have again and again discussed specific cases to show the limitations of law enforcement under the current system, an action characterized as fear-mongering by progressive advocates.
“Some people that would be incarcerated for now — they’re committing crimes for a second time,” Clifford said. “I know firsthand that I’ve dealt with many individuals about being crime victims and they’ve called me up with a complaint saying your officers didn’t do anything. ‘They broke my window’ and I didn’t do anything, so of course, I’m not happy about that.”
But in some of these cases, officers did make arrests, Clifford said. But in light of the new bail rules, those charged may have been allowed to go back out on the streets, he said.
Groups like the New York Civil Liberties Association and the Innocence Project have long pushed to ditch the old system. Bail reform was among a series of progressive reforms previously unattainable in budget negotiations with the state Senate’s GOP-caucus-aligned Independent Democratic Conference.
Leaders with the Schenectady-based All of Us, a social justice group run by Jamaica Miles and Shawn Young, believe the chief’s comments on bail reform are “asking us to go back to the way it was, knowing how disproportionately that system impacts Black, Indigenous, people of Color and people living in poverty.”
“If Chief Clifford is truly committed to finding the cause of an increase in crime, let him start by looking at the longstanding root causes that were exacerbated by the pandemic and support solutions that have been proposed by the very community he says he serves, more resources and support for people living in poor and marginalized communities,” All of Us of wrote in a statement to the Gazette.
Residential burglaries went up 6%, nonresidential burglaries 8%, motor vehicle thefts 15% and larcenies — one of Schenectady’s highest index crimes — 20%, according to a 29-city nationwide study from the Council on Criminal Justice between the second half of 2021 and first half of 2022. Most violent crimes are down, but haven’t returned to 2019 levels.
Crime plunged at the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown and then reversed course in many localities as restrictions dwindled.
That year also marked the first year of bail reform. Out of about 100,000 cases with suspects granted pretrial release between July 2020 and June 2021, around 2% (2,051) resulted in violent felony rearrests while another case pended, according to the state Office of Division of Criminal Justice Services. Additionally, one-fifth of all overall cases resulted in rearrest.
GOP leaders questioned the data’s release in early January of 2022 after a previous batch of erroneous figures were dumped a day earlier.
Connecting bail reform to crime has been a major talking point for Republican gubernatorial hopeful Lee Zeldin in his tightening face-off with Hochul. It might be in his wheelhouse, too. Crime was listed as the no. 1 issue facing state voters, according to a Quinnapiac poll released earlier in October.
In the Capital Region, 20th Congressional District Republican candidate Liz Joy has been outspoken about crime, against “defund police” calls delivered during the Black Lives Matter movement and expressed dissent toward bail reform since first running for the seat in 2020.
“So violent crime is something that I very much want to fix,” Joy said. “And I believe, I will say, I do believe reform needs to happen — but I believe we need to keep violent criminals and repeat offenders that are violent behind bars — but I do believe reform needs to happen.”
Her second-time opponent, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-Amsterdam), fired back in separate interview.
“Right, so [Liz Joy] might want to run for state Assembly or state Senate,” said Tonko, who boasted of his support of federal legislation this year that reformed gun laws and boosted mental health resources. “I’m doing what I can from my perspective.”
110th Assembly District GOP candidate Alexandra Vellela regards rising crime as a major concern for voters in the mostly suburban battleground. Locally born Vellela moved downstate during college and returned in 2020 at the height of the novel Coronavirus pandemic.
“You see strangers walking up and down the road in very picturesque suburbs where I grew up,” Vellela posited. “I feel like growing up and maybe it was because I was somewhat shielded from it, your teenage shenanigans were kind of the worst it would be.”
Her opponent, Assemblyman Phil Steck D-Colonie, is among a bevy of state Democratic lawmakers in upstate New York who originally opposed bail reform. In a recent interview with WTEN-TV, Steck contended that bail reform hasn’t wreaked havoc on his district, but still wants additional amendments to exempt cashless bail for gun-related offenses and domestic violence crimes.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, was a staunch opponent of the new bail-reform laws even before the measures went into effect, and he’s supported judicial discretion in setting bail all along. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office reportedly texted Santabarbara to stop tweeting against bail reform in the early days of reform, a claim the office denied.
In this year’s Saratoga County district attorney race, Democratic candidate Michael Phillips and GOP opponent Karen Heggen, appear to share some daylight on bail reform in an otherwise blistering campaign against the incumbent.
“There’s no such thing as one size fits all,” Phillips said. “To a certain extent, [bail reform] is endemic of a New York City-dominated legislature and then there’s those upstate.”
Opponents of the measure are typically divided among amendment advocates and full-repeal advocates.
State Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Glenville) called for a special session in April to fully repeal “catch and release” bail reform, convinced the law threatens public safety. Tedisco, who has worked with Santabarbara on the matter before, believes the original proposal should’ve been completed through bipartisanship and greater support from law enforcement.
Tedisco’s challenger for the 44th state Senate district Michelle Ostrelich is against a full repeal on the grounds there isn’t enough data showing an adverse impact on the matter. In a recent statement, the Democratic now-Schenectady County legislator representing Niskayuna, Scotia, and Glenville, said that diverting mental health resources and de-escalating retaliatory gun violence can play a key role in preventing recidivism.
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-4095 or [email protected]