New York State lawmakers are likely to revisit a new bail reform law that went into effect on Jan. 1. The law eliminated bail money for most arrests and took away judges’ longstanding discretion on whether or not an individual should be held pending a formal court date or post a sum of cash designed to assure the alleged offender’s return to face charges. In some cases, defendants might be tempted to leave town, hoping to outrun the law; in others, police and critics of the law say, they might reoffend.
Backers of bail reform counter that far too many people have been held indefinitely awaiting trial in New York State. They also point out that the lack of ability to provide cash bail disproportionately affects the poor and low-pay workers. In one often-cited example, a young man killed himself after being held on Rikers Island for three years. According to a justice reform group, as high as 67 percent of the state’s jail population on any given day are being held pretrial, more than half of them minorities.
Law enforcement officials, including Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., have called for immediate repeal until a better solution is found. They have produced dramatic lists of the criminal charges for which bail can no longer be set in New York State, with the implication that without bail, people accused of second-degree manslaughter, grand larceny, or arson, for example, can avoid even a night in jail. Only, many people accused of such crimes already are released — anyone with enough money can make bail and walk free while awaiting a day in court.
What the anti-bail reform outcry actually seems to be about is a prejudice held by some that the working poor and indigent in New York should be held, while those with supportive friends and family or an ample bank balance are not. It is not difficult to see the grim specter of bigotry here; because of the wealth disparity in the United States, about 60 percent of the pretrial prison population in New York could be black and Latino at any one time.
On New Year’s Eve, an all-white collection of Republican lawmakers held a press conference in front of the Suffolk Correctional Facility in Riverside warning of “criminals with long rap sheets, drug dealers, sex offenders and gang members that have proven they will recommit every chance they get,” as one of them put it.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. is a co-sponsor of what could be a compromise in the Legislature that would give courts discretion to set bail on a broader range of charges. This is the right approach. Lawmakers should not give in to the voices of racial divisiveness as they continue work on improving the legal system for all New Yorkers, not just the white or rich.