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Why Has Bail Reform Been a Topic of Debate in NY Since 2019?

By: Dean J. Condoleo

CLAIRE DAVENPORT, Host: It's been five years since New York State made a major change to how bail works. 

PASCAL HOGUE, Host: Since April 2019, most people accused of misdemeanors and lower-level felonies, things like turnstile jumping, driving under the influence, and prostitution, no longer have to post bail to be released before their court hearings. 

DAVENPORT: Advocates say bail reform fixes a system that disproportionately impacts poor people. Critics maintain it's a threat to public safety. 

HOGUE: As Dean Condoleo reports, five years later, bail reform is still a lightning rod for debate.

DEAN CONDOLEO: One of the rallying cries five years ago for bail reform was the death of Kalief Browder. 

CYNTHIA GODSOE: “Kalief Browder, who went in at 17 for three years for a theft of a backpack, which he was probably innocent of, but even if he wasn't, it was the theft of a backpack.”

CONDOLEO: Cynthia Godsoe teaches criminal law at Brooklyn Law School. In Kalief Browder’s case, he spent three years at Rikers Island—mostly in solitary confinement - because he couldn’t afford bail. 

GODSOE: “People were routinely jailed for minor minor things whereas like major offenses people like the Harvey Weinstein's the world were able to be free because they could pay for it.”

CONDOLEO: And at the crux of bail reform: even relatively small bail amounts can be too much for the city’s poorest residents. But…. every time there’s a fatal crime in New York City, critics are quick to blame bail reform. CUNY’s Jennifer Ferone studies the public’s perception of crime and she says the media is partly to blame.  

JENNIFER FERONE: “Taking certain stories and making them directly attributable to bail reform when in fact it was actually unclear // those kinds of media accounts do make the public nervous when it comes to bail reform

CONDOLEO: In the five years since bail reform passed, the state legislature has twice restored some discretion to judges to require bail for certain crimes. Still…some bail reform critics…like former NYPD Detective David Sarni say the whole system is a mess. He’s still frustrated at how it was decided five years ago. 

DAVID SARNI: “There was not one law enforcement agency, not one prosecutor's office that was engaged in the conversation. We never had a seat at the table. This was done by politicians, legal defenders, such as legal aid, Bronx defenders, innocence project with nary involvement by professionals who've been dealing with this system for decades.”

CONDOLEO: Sarni argues that without the threat of bail…some people will just keep committing crimes. 

SARNI: “What you're seeing now is that type of person becoming emboldened and we emboldened criminality because of that. They know I'm getting out tomorrow. I'm getting out in three hours and they know it. So what are they doing? They're continuing to continue the crime spree. And all we can do as the police department is arrest them and hope we can eventually prosecute one case.”

CONDOLEO: That question of what keeps someone from committing another crime is a big part of what Michael Rempel studies at John Jay College. 

MICHAEL REMPEL: “We're comparing individuals who were released as a result of the bail reform law to similar individuals, same types of criminal history and charges who had bail set before the law went into effect in 2019.”

CONDOLEO: And Rempel says…the data just doesn’t show that most people being released are NOT just going back out to commit more crimes. He says that’s in part because being held in jail before trial is a big detour in their life. 

REMPEL: “The experience of detention will be harmful because people lose their jobs, lose their housing, experience trauma, and those things will increase recidivism after their release.”

CONDOLEO: Researchers like Rempel are getting more and more data each year about the impact of bail reform. And ultimately, that data might be the only thing that shifts people’s perceptions. Dean Condoleo, Columbia Radio News

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