I mean really talk. At a time when American opinion is polarized on nearly every issue, it’s no wonder that discussions around something so sensitive, so personal, as our own safety wouldn’t be any different. But bail reform deserves a level of nuance many stakeholders haven’t yet tried to demonstrate.
In the absence of nuance, two entrenched viewpoints have taken hold: you’re either A) coddling criminals if you support existing bail reform laws, or B) a racist for suggesting they could currently be improved. These callous, bumper-sticker slogans display a disregard for what’s truly at stake–the coexistence of just treatment under the law with public safety–and they hold us back from meaningful progress.
One of our Constitution’s bedrock principles is innocence until proven guilty. The reforms advanced in 2019 attempted to ensure those without money–who have been charged but not yet convicted of a crime–aren’t thrown in jail simply because they can’t afford to post bail.
Recall one of the most high-profile serial harassers: media mogul Harvey Weinstein. Facing countless charges of abuse and rape, Weinstein was able to await trial in the comfort of his own home by paying $2 million in bail. For just about anyone else, posting $2 million would have been financially impossible, leading them to await their trial in a jail cell. This is exactly the type of inequity bail reform attempts to course-correct by treating people equally pre-trial, regardless of their wealth.
It is critical, however, that we strike a better balance between pre-trial reforms and public safety than currently exists. While 80% of defendants (not yet found guilty) impacted by the 2019 bail reform law have not reoffended while awaiting trial and, instead, have been able to continue working and providing for their family, the remaining 20% have reoffended. We must do more to address that 20%; society cannot and should not tolerate revolving-door criminals who are shoplifting on a Monday, given a ticket, then right back to shoplifting on a Tuesday only to be given another flimsy piece of paper.
I was recently made aware of a Rockland County man who racked up 18 arrests in three years. Before bail reform took effect in 2020, this man would’ve been arrested for car-jacking and served time in pre-trial detention, keeping his community safe and mitigating repeat offenses. After the passage of bail reform, his petty crimes didn’t warrant bail-eligibility, or any judicial discretion to hold him. As a result, his criminal activity has intensified.
A local law enforcement official told me: “In all honesty, I believed [he] was going to be killed by a victim defending himself, or one of his encounters going awry. Had it not been for his domestic incidents that allowed a judge some discretion...[he] most definitely would be a statistic by now.”
We have an obligation to implement reasonable improvements to the bail system that strike a more rational balance between reform and protection. Thoughtful amendments such as making all repeat offenses bail-eligible, better cracking down on gun charges, and expanding mandatory treatment for New Yorkers suffering from mental illness would ensure the 20% who pose a risk pre-trial are addressed while preserving the Constitutional rights of the 80% of individuals who are peacefully awaiting their proceedings.
Addressing the shortcomings of bail reform will require an honest, good-faith dialogue, something that has been sorely lacking from the rhetoric of the past three years. At a time when our constituents are looking to us to keep their communities safe, New Yorkers not only deserve better, but need better.
Senator James Skoufis represents New York State Senate District 39, covering parts of Rockland, Orange, and Ulster counties.