Debating the impacts of bail reform

ERIK MCGREGOR/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES
New York State Assembly Member Latrice Walker

Debating the impacts of bail reform

State Sen. Michael Gianaris, Assembly Member Latrice Walker and former Queens prosecutor James Quinn discussed law changes at John Jay College of Criminal Justice Friday.
May 15, 2022

Even after lawmakers in Albany approved another rollback of the 2019 bail reform law that eliminated pretrial detention in the vast majority of cases, the issue remains an incredibly contentious one. On Friday, John Jay College of Criminal Justice hosted a conference featuring lawmakers, criminal justice advocates, legal experts and journalists to delve into that ongoing debate that will surely continue well past the end of the 2022 legislative session. 

The bail law most recently changed as part of this year’s state budget, coming as a last minute push from Gov. Kathy Hochul that upended the negotiations up to that point. The amendments approved in April made more gun crimes eligible for bail and gave judges greater discretion to consider factors other than flight risk when determining bail or pretrial detention. Democrats in the state Legislature resisted greater changes, like adding a so-called dangerousness clause that would have allowed judges to weigh the potential danger a defendant poses if they are released before trial.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris, the deputy majority leader of his chamber and a staunch supporter of the 2019 changes made to bail, kicked off the conference offering his usual defense of the reforms that have since been blamed for increased crime rates. “The people that did not like what we did are using (increased crime rates) very effectively to completely mischaracterize the law,” Gianaris said in conversation with NY1 anchor Errol Louis at the conference. He pointed to other cities that have seen spikes in crime since the pandemic began that have enacted bail reform in the recent past. It’s a common defense from supporters of bail reform.

Although opponents of bail reform have seen some success in rolling it back, first in 2020 and again in 2022, Gianaris said that he doesn’t believe that the ongoing opposition will lead to wide-reaching political implications, adding that Democratic lawmakers in the Legislature have drawn a “hard line” not to go back to pre-2019 bail conditions. “To the extent people want to keep having that conversation, they can,” Gianaris said. “They bludgeoned us with that in 2020… and we came back with the supermajority.” That wasn’t the case, however, in 2021, when Democrats suffered deep losses on the town and county levels on Long Island thanks to Republicans campaigning on bail reform. 

Following Gianaris was James Quinn, a former prosecutor with the Queens district attorney’s office, who offered the direct opposite opinion. Pointing to crime statistics before the pandemic effectively shut the state down in early 2020, Quinn argued that the system that had been in place prior to bail reform worked as it should with years of record-low crime rates. Following the changes to the law, he said that crimes that judges could no longer set bail on saw immediate increases in numbers. “This is not a proper fix,” Quinn said. “It is endangering the people of the state of New York. And the statistics, if you look at them honestly… it shows that the bail reform laws and the people who have been released under them are committing the crimes that are causing the crime rise in New York City.” He denied claims of racial biases in the criminal justice system and assertions that bail unfairly impacts low-income people of color. 

Quinn’s arguments were met with disdain from other members of the panel that he was a part of. Alice Fontier, a public defender, cited the 20 deaths that have occurred in New York City jails in the past 17 months. “These facilities, over many years of dysfunction, have become nothing short of a torture chamber, where people are consigned to languish for months, for years, waiting for trial, or death,” Fontier said. “And death comes faster.” She said that bail reform is working as intended as it was meant to reduce the number of people in jail awaiting trial. 

Assembly Member Latrice Walker later reiterated what Gianaris said earlier in the discussion on the prospect of giving judges even greater discretion. “I have zero tolerance on the implementation of this dangerousness standard,” Walker said, referring back to her 19-day hunger strike to protest bail reform rollbacks. She argued that judges already have discretion, including new discretion to order defendants receive addiction or housing counseling, for example, as they await trial. “But we have to put our money where our mouth is,” Walker said. “And so we'll be calling on the governor as well to put the resources behind (it) so that we can have our judges be able to lean on the community-based organizations that we know will help us in our ultimate goal of public safety.”

Rebecca C. Lewis
is an editorial assistant at City & State.
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