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EDITORIAL: In Albany case, bail reform backers suffer potential setback

EDITORIAL: In Albany case, bail reform backers suffer potential setback

Could DA's and grand juries start overcharging suspects to sidestep new bail law?
EDITORIAL: In Albany case, bail reform backers suffer potential setback
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Advocates for bail reforms who are pushing back against efforts to amend the new state law might want to consider a situation in Albany County as evidence that the new law doesn’t always work in the best interests of defendants and that they might want to soften their opposition to changes.

The new bail reform laws, which took effect on Jan. 1, add a long list of supposedly non-violent new misdemeanors and felonies to the charges that require judges to release defendants without bail. 

As a result, some violent offenders who normally would have been detained on high bail or no bail have been turned loose, prompting efforts to tighten up the law on the grounds of public safety.

Despite some high-profile releases, supporters of the bail reforms have steadfastly fought against tightening up the law.

Here’s why they might want to reconsider. It involves the case of an Albany man previously charged with second-degree manslaughter in the death of a 29-year-old woman in July.

Under the new relaxed bail conditions, he was recently released after being held in custody for the past six months. 

On Monday, the Albany County District Attorney’s Office announced that the suspect has now been indicted on a charge of second-degree murder, a charge not covered by new bail reforms and one that could result in him being returned to jail to await trial.

And now rather than facing 5 to 15 years in prison, he could face 25 years to life.

Now, we don’t know if the charges were upgraded to a much more serious offense just to get the suspect back in jail. We’ll give prosecutors and grand jurors the benefit of the doubt that new evidence supports the more serious charge.

But one could easily see from this example how charging someone with a more serious crime — one not eligible for release without bail — could be used as a tactic by prosecutors and grand juries to keep dangerous defendants in custody who otherwise might have been released.

It won’t take long for some prosecutors and grand jurors to figure out that padding the charges is a legal way to get around the new reforms.

That could result in more defendants facing more serious charges than they otherwise would be or deserve, resulting in longer potential sentences, more pressure to take plea bargains, more pressure to plead to more serious charges, and less likelihood of being found innocent.

It also could result in more defendants being held in jail who shouldn’t be — defeating the whole purpose of the reforms.

This new law has been riddled with the potential for unintended consequences from the start, mostly against public safety.

The potential for more serious charges being lodged against defendants to get them back in jail, however, is one consequence reform supporters might want to think about when deciding whether to keep fighting efforts to amend the law.

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