Controversy over bail reform in NY continues

It's been more than a year and a half since New York instituted sweeping bail reform, and even with a revision to the law rolling back some of its provisions several months later, the debate over the reform's impact on New York City has only grown more intense.

For its supporters, New York's elimination of cash bail for most nonviolent crimes ensures that people will not be locked up simply because they're too poor to pay for their release while wealthier defendants charged with the same crime walk free. But the city's rise in crime amid the COVID-19 pandemic has had bail reform's skeptics and opponents saying "told you so" as they push for repeal.

Retired NYPD Lieutenant Dave Boehm said criminals are taking advantage of the new rules banning cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

"We have people out in the streets in New York who have been arrested 10, 15, 20 times for assault [in the third degree], a misdemeanor, and they'll just continue doing that" because they know they are going to be released, Boehm said.

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Instead, judges in such cases must adopt the least restrictive conditions necessary to ensure the person charged with such crimes will return to court.

Still, judges retain the discretion to set bail for almost all violent felonies, certain non-violent felonies such as sex offenses and witness tampering, and crimes like vehicular assault.

And criminal justice reformers backing the new bail law say the NYPD's own statistics for the first half of 2020 suggest bail reform played no role in the surge of shootings during that time, proving critics of bail reform wrong.

"Between January and June of last year, 2020, around 11,000 people or so were released under the bail reform initiative, but among them, as of July 2020, only 1 had been charged in a shooting," said Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. 

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The June 2021 crime statistics, meanwhile, showed shootings down 20 percent and murders down 23 percent since the same time a year earlier.

And with crime still low compared to its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, Alvin Bragg, the Democratic candidate for Manhatthan's District Attorney, has vowed to abide "by the spirit and the letter of the new bail reform law" as part of his plan to end mass incarceration.

Nevertheless, Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Adams told CNN on Sunday that he'll push to keep people arrested on gun charges locked up pending trial if he's elected in November.

"We're going to be extremely comfortable going to our judges and stating we can't have people participating in gun violence and out the next day, that's unacceptable," Adams said.

Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, also a Democrat, agrees with Adams, and has his own suggestion on how to meet more progressive reformers like Bragg halfway.

"In the federal system, cash bail doesn't exist. If you're not deemed a public risk, you are released while your case is pending. If you are, you're detained. And that's a system we should have here in New York City," McMahon said.

It's a system similar to New Jersey's as well, and the city's other four district attorneys also support adopting such a policy. But that, too, would revolutionize the New York's bail laws. Since 1971, the state has banned judges from considering the potential dangerousness of defendants so as not to compromise their presumption of innocence.