Criminal Justice

Opponents of New York Bail Reform Seize on Anti-Semitic Attacks in Order To Sabotage Important Changes

Jewish criminal justice groups are not having it.

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The same people who never wanted bail reform in New York in the first place say the latest anti-Semitic attacks in New York City are a reason to kibosh the reforms before the state gets a chance to implement them.

The start of 2020 ushered in looser bail requirements across the state of New York, significantly reducing the ability of courts to demand that defendants pay the state money or spend their time awaiting trial in a jail cell. Courts can no longer demand cash bail for most misdemeanors and many non-violent felonies. The reforms are similar, but not nearly as extensive, as the changes New Jersey has made to its own bail system.

These changes are intended to curb some of the bad outcomes of the cash bail system, which is supposed to make sure that defendants show up for court and don't cause trouble while they're free. In reality, cash bail demands have led to thousands of people stuck in jail not because they're a danger or flight risks, but because they simply don't have the money to pay. It has left many people who have not been convicted of crimes stuck behind bars as though they're guilty. Poorer defendants are being punished before ever getting their day in court, often for minor crimes. The prospect of awaiting trial behind bars incentivizes defendants to accept plea deals as a means of shortening or ending their ordeal.

Reform critics are finding media outlets like the New York Post to be a helpful megaphone. Several Post writers and contributors have been bluntly treating the new bail rule as though it's the end of the world, ignoring the fact that these reforms aren't as extensive as those passed by New Jersey. News coverage in the run-up to the changes have referred to the number of "inmates" that will be released under the new law, a description that suggests to the reader or viewer that these are people who have already been found guilty.

Former Republican Senator Al D'Amato took the umbrage to a new level in an opinion piece saying the reforms as already "botched," despite being just days old. He claims that eliminating bail is "forcing judges to grant criminals 'early release' by severely limiting their discretion in setting bail." In D'Amato's ideal New York, just getting arrested for a crime is exactly the same as being convicted. Who needs juries or judges at all?

It's been just one week since the bail reforms were implemented, and policymakers are already having second thoughts. The outrage over anti-Semitic violence in New York is causing bail reform supporters like Gov. Andrew Cuomo to consider the possibility of tweaking the law.

In this case, the discussion is whether people accused of hate crimes should be given more scrutiny. Cuomo said on Monday he'd be open to possible changes and even one of the reform bill's architects, State Sen. Michael Ginaris (D–Queens), is open to adjustments for hate crimes.

A lot of this reconsideration stems from just one person: Tiffany Harris, who was arrested for allegedly attacking three Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn last year. Harris was released without bail, and the very next day was accused of punching another woman. She was released again and then arrested New Year's Eve after allegedly skipping out on a meeting with Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, a group that runs supervised release programs intended to help defendants.

Harris is a problem defendant and the courts need a way of dealing with folks like her regardless of bail reform. Based on news reports, it appears that Harris needs a psychiatric evaluation, even though her lawyer insists that Harris is mentally sound.

Harris represents complicated, difficult cases that shouldn't be used to dismiss all of bail reform. In fact, one of the odder parts of the state's bail reform conflict is that New York City has already made significant changes over the past three decades that reduce the dependency on and demands of cash bail. Over the past 30 years, New York City's use of cash bail has slowly been cut in half. The city went from demanding bail in 48 percent of cases to just 23 percent of cases. Crime fell alongside the decline in pretrial detention, and defendants are still showing up to their court dates at rates higher than the national average.

Of course, the bail reforms in New York will need regular evaluation because of folks like Harris and others who can't stay out of trouble. But it's unconstitutional to treat people as though they've already been convicted just because they've been arrested, regardless of what sort of outrageous language the New York Post uses to describe this conflict.

And while opponents of bail reform are trying to seize on these hate crimes in order to attack it, Jewish organizations who care about criminal justice reform are not having it. Several Jewish organizations put out a group statement Monday saying that they support bail reforms and don't want hate crime incidents to be used as a justification for compromising changes.

"We won't let Jewish pain be weaponized against our neighbors," tweeted out Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. "The many violent incidents targeting Jews in 2019 and bail reform are not related, as bail reform only went into effect a week ago. We need real reforms to the danger facing the Jewish people, not regressive political moves that will needlessly hurt thousands of New Yorkers."