The jury’s out on bail reform
The good news is that we have more data on how New York’s criminal justice system is working in a new era of bail reform. The bad news is that it’s hardly enough to make informed decisions about whether to reform the reforms.
Here’s an example: For every 100 defendants released in the first year of the state’s reformed bail laws, two-thirds of them, on average, were not rearrested while awaiting the disposition of their case, new state statistics show. On average, 97 of them were not rearrested for committing a violent crime. And the vast majority of people who were rearrested were charged with relatively minor non-violent offenses.
Of course, depending on how you feel about bail reform, you could frame that data in a rather more ominous way: One in three people released under bail reform were accused of committing a crime. More than 3,400 people were arrested on violent felony charges after they were released.
Perhaps most importantly, the data, released by the Office of Court Administration and reviewed by the Times Union’s Joshua Solomon and Brendan J. Lyons, comes in a vacuum: There are no statistics from the time prior to bail reform to compare this data with. So we don’t know if more or fewer people are committing crimes after they’re released while their charges are pending than before, or if the rate of rearrests has changed.
That’s not to say there aren’t any apparent concerns or benefits. The data appear to affirm that bail reform is, for the vast majority of defendants, doing what it was supposed to do — allow them to go about their lives, to work, put food on their families’ tables, keep up with the rent and other bills, and above all remain free — and crime-free — as long as police and prosecutors have not proved they did anything wrong.
Before bail was eliminated for all but the most violent crimes, the story was quite different: Defendants who didn’t have enough money to make bail languished behind bars, guilty or not, while those with enough money could go free pending trial. The threat of long periods of incarceration without even a trial prompted too many defendants to plead guilty even when they were not.
Statistics, though, don’t matter much to victims of crimes committed by defendants who just go out and commit another offense, like violating orders of protection, intimidating witnesses, or some crime unrelated to the one they’re charged with. And, anecdotally at least, there are instances when judges inexplicably keep releasing people even when they’re rearrested multiple times.
We don’t need to wait months or years for more data and debate on this. Surely the Office of Court Administration can look at these instances on a case-by-case basis and figure out what’s wrong — whether it’s a lack of judicial understanding of the law, or weaknesses in the law itself. If judges need more education and training, they should get it; if the law needs tweaking, then OCA should develop recommendations for the Legislature on how it might be fixed.
This much we do know: What New York had before was not a fair and just system. Tens of thousands of defendants have shown there is a better way — and by any measure there are far more of them than those who, allegedly, violated the system’s trust.
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