The claim that bail reform in New York State has led to an increase in violence is not supported by facts. This centerpiece of Representative Lee Zeldin’s campaign for governor, as well as that of many down-ticket candidates, has been widely rejected as false, but you would not know that from the barrage of advertisements making the link, when all the evidence is to the contrary. This may not matter to the intended audience, for whom the message is meant to amplify fear and motivate their vote.
Bail reform came about after years of pressure on state lawmakers to address a system in which low-level alleged offenders who were unable to come up with money for pretrial release were being held for months at a time. The key argument was that a person’s ability to pay should not determine whether they remained free while charges were pending. Put another way, the poor were being locked up, sometimes indefinitely, while the well-off walked free — all before being found guilty. Race played a role, too. In a study of upstate counties, white suspects were twice as likely to be released on bail as Black ones.
The law now eliminates cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Regardless of their wealth or skin color, alleged offenders can be freed subject to conditions, such as ankle monitoring; the rich, of course, had always had this option. Under the rules, judges may still set bail in almost any case involving a violent felony. They can also set bail for suspects who were released and then were arrested for another offense, provided both charges are felonies or Class-A misdemeanors and involve harm to people or property.
Newsday took a deep dive into the anti-bail reform claims and found them overstated. Re-arrest rates from 2019, before bail reform began, compared with the two following years, remained almost flat. This was during a period when crime nationwide jumped. This was for both violent and nonviolent arrests. Statewide, the number of released suspects who failed to appear in court actually fell — in New York City, for example, from 15 percent no-shows to 9 percent.
The Albany Times Union reviewed state figures on pretrial releases identifying nearly 100,000 cases where someone was released because of the new bail laws. In 2 percent of cases, there was a re-arrest for a violent felony. Just 429 re-arrests were in connection with a violent felony involving a firearm.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan legal policy institute, said in a recent report, “We find no evidence to believe that bail reform drove recent increases in violence.”
The classism and the racist tendencies among bail reform’s political critics are clear. Those kept behind bars before the policy changed were Black and brown by a large margin. More affluent individuals, or those with family sources of money, were more likely to make bail. Releasing these wealthier accused people is fine with these policy critics. Candidates like Mr. Zeldin try to tap grievances and fears among right-leaning whites of an urban, brown-skinned “other” out to get them.
Their voters may be impervious to the facts about bail reform, but reasonable-minded Republicans, Democrats, and independents must look past their pushing baseless claims in an attempt to stoke divisions for their own political gain.