Good intentions are not always answered with good results. Last year Albany passed an ambitious package of new laws to reform our criminal justice system that went into effect on Jan. 1. Chief among these changes was the elimination of cash bail. Since the start of the year, we have seen a steady stream of news articles about people released under the revised rules who have gone on to commit new criminal acts. At least one of these cases resulted in the death of an innocent person. This new law is not working the way it was designed and has unleashed a range of unintended consequences, putting the public at risk.
That is not to say the way we did things before was without flaw. Under the previous system, the accused would appear before a judge for a bail hearing, evidence was reviewed and bail was set. The accused could pay the money and be free until their trial date. Bail was intended to be an incentive for a defendant to return for trial. In some cases bail was set for as low as $200, an amount easily afforded by many, but impossible for the poor. Disproportionally, people of lower incomes would sit in jail for minor offenses while those of means paid their way out of jail for far more serious crimes. This inequity was the target of the reform. However, and most important, judges also had wide discretion to simply deny bail altogether in cases where the risk of reoffending or an escalation of violence was too great to grant release. Sadly, that option has been lost under bail reform and has led to the real problems confronting our law enforcement.
Lawmakers in Albany hoped to correct the inequalities of the old system by eliminating cash bail and creating a speedier process by which those arrested could be released to prepare for their criminal trial. Currently, if you are arrested for a nonviolent felony or misdemeanor, you are automatically granted release. This includes those who have repeatedly committed offenses while they are awaiting trial. Law enforcement officials are reporting arresting people two, three or even more times for the same crime, but they are being forced to release the person each time. Furthermore, certain crimes that were considered “nonviolent” by bail reform still pose a serious risk to the community, such as drunk driving.
Bail reform was rushed through without being given the due diligence it deserves. There are holes that are leading to innocent people becoming victims. But the idea at the heart of the reform is a good one and one that we shouldn’t cast away because the current law isn’t working. We should not return to the inequities of the past.
There are things we can do to give discretion back to judges and clean up some of the new discovery rules so that victims aren’t forced to make unfair accommodations to the defense. I am encouraged by statements from Gov. Cuomo, who has said that changes are needed. Our own representatives in Albany, Senators James Gaughran and Monica Martinez, are leading the charge in the legislative branch with proposals to scale back some of the changes.
In the meantime, our local law enforcement here in Suffolk County is working hard to keep our communities safe. Crime is and continues to be, at historic lows in Suffolk County. The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, the Suffolk County Police Department and our East End police departments continue to exemplify the very best in law enforcement. We are safer here in Suffolk County thanks to their work, and, if Albany makes reasonable alterations to bail reform, we can continue that trend.