Bail reform is a good idea

The Daily Star on bail reform

Feb. 19

There is a huge income inequity in jails in New York.

Those who are poor and arrested on a minor crime often end up sitting in jail until trial because they can’t scrape together the money for bail. But those who have the funds can be out as soon as the money is paid.

A person who needs to work to make ends meet ends up sitting in a jail cell rather than working, often putting his or her job at risk.

Meanwhile, a person charged with the same crime who can afford bail can be back to work the next day, living life as if the minor offense did not happen.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is looking to change this. He introduced his “2019 Pre-trial Justice Reform Act,” as part of an agenda of reform legislation.

The legislation would eliminate monetary bail for people facing misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges. People will be released either on their own recognizance or with non-monetary conditions imposed by the court, such as reporting to a pretrial services agency.

In some cases, such as domestic violence or other serious violent offenses, or when a defendant commits a new crime while out on pretrial release, a judge could order a defendant to be held in jail pretrial without bail if the judge finds the defendant “poses a significant flight risk or if there is a current threat to a reasonably identifiable person’s physical safety,” according to Cuomo’s proposal.

While the New York Sheriffs’ Association has not issued its final response to the plan, the group’s associate counsel, Alex Wilson, told CNHI it has already identified several major areas of concern.

One is the lack of a police officer’s discretion in issuing a ticket or placing the person under arrest. Another, he said, is that those who get tickets but fail to appear in court could strain the ability of police agencies to locate them.

Michelle Esquenazi, who heads the state Bail Bond Association and runs a bail firm in Brooklyn, said her group would support some reforms if they ensured “accountability” in the criminal justice system, with the benefits being aimed at first-time offenders whose alleged offenses did not harm other individuals.

“I would never be OK with legislating out the judiciary,” she said, contending that a system that affords judges discretion to jail a defendant due to public safety concerns best protects communities.

Cuomo’s proposal was promoted at a Jan. 29 state budget hearing by Michael Green, commissioner of the governor’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.

“The majority of people in New York’s jails are held because they cannot afford to post bail,” Green advised lawmakers. “This current system is unfair to those who lack financial resources.”

Some question that statement.

While agreeing that problems with the bail system are “worth examining,” Albany County District Attorney David Soares, who heads the state’s District Attorneys’ Association, said “only a small fraction of those charged with minor crimes or some major ones are being held in jails because of a failure to make bail.”

If it is a “majority” or a “small fraction,” it doesn’t really matter to us. Being held in jail just because you can’t make bail isn’t right. The crime, the defendant’s history and the threat to society should be factors. The ability to pay should not.

There is no doubt New York’s bail system is broken.

Is Cuomo’s plan perfect? No.

But it is a start.