The Justice Department Wades Into New York Bail Reform Fight With Federal Hate Crime Charges Over Slapping

Police and prosecutors want to maintain a system that punishes poor people before they’re ever convicted.


The Department of Justice is wading into the conflict surrounding New York's 1-month-old bail reforms by charging a woman accused of assaulting several Jewish women with federal hate crimes.

Tiffany Harris, 30, of Brooklyn, New York, has been trotted out by police and prosecutors who are critical of New York's new system, which, like nearby New Jersey, strives to eliminate the use of cash bail for misdemeanor and nonviolent arrests. Harris is accused of walking up to three separate Orthodox Jewish women in Crown Heights in New York in December and slapping them. In one incident she said "Fuck you Jews," so the attacks are being described as anti-Semitic hate crimes.

The facts of the case also present what seems to be a troubled woman who probably needs professional help, not somebody attempting to mastermind some sort of escalation of violence against New York City's Jewish community. Under New York's laws, she's been released without cash bail demands, and she's being held up (particularly by the New York Post) as proof that bail reforms are bad, because she continued to act out after she had been freed (and was eventually rearrested).

On Tuesday federal prosecutors got involved by charging her with violating federal hate crime laws by assaulting the women on the basis of their perceived religion. Richard Donoghue, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, announced the charges, along with an FBI official at the New York field office and New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea. Yes, they brought out all these big guns to announce federal charges against a woman who slapped three people. There are even quotes and a press release:

"As alleged in the criminal complaint, the defendant attacked three women solely because they were Jewish, striking not only at the innocent victims, but also at our country's founding principles of tolerance and respect for civil rights," stated Donoghue. "The use of violence, or the threats of violence, against anyone based on the victim's religion will not be tolerated, and those who engage in such conduct will learn that under federal law there are serious consequences for hate crimes."

They noted that Harris faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted (in reality, under federal sentence scheduling, she'll receive far less). After suggesting Harris' alleged assaults potentially undermine the country's foundation of civil rights, they added that she's presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Those who attack bail reform want to downplay that "presumed innocent" part, but that's what's important and that's exactly why the shift away from cash bail has been happening. Harris hasn't been convicted of a crime. Those who are outraged over her release are the ones presuming her guilt. They are angry that she's not being punished and put behind bars even though she has not yet been convicted.

Shea inadvertently gives up the game by blaming bail reform for a recent spike in crimes in New York City since the start of the year, without providing any evidence that the people responsible for the crimes are those who have been released without bail:

"In the first three weeks of this year, we're seeing significant spikes in crime. So either we forgot how to police New York City, or there's a correlation," Shea told reporters in reference to the new laws.

"If you let out individuals that commit a lot of crime, that's precision policing in reverse and we're seeing the effects in a very quick time, and that is why we're so concerned."

Note the assumption of guilt in Shea's quotes. He's acting as though these people who are released without having to pay bail have been convicted. They have not been. What police and prosecutors are demanding is the ability to be able to punish people by holding them in jail cells prior to proving they committed a crime.

That's not what bail was supposed to be for. Cash bail was intended to make sure that people who have been charged with crimes show up at court and have financial incentives to stay out of trouble while they're free. It's not supposed to be a tool to use money to determine who goes free and who is jailed on the basis of who has access to money and who doesn't, yet that's exactly what's been happening and why activists have been pushing for reform.

As I've noted previously, New York City actually significantly reformed bail decades ago to dramatically reduce the demands for cash bail in the city and continued to see crime fall. It's actually outside of New York City where these changes will have the most impact.

Among those who are horrified that Harris' case is being used to attack bail reform is one of her own alleged victims. Elyse Maister spoke to the New York Daily News earlier this week and expressed dismay about what's happened in response to the incident. She was walking home from a Hanukkah party on December 27 when Harris allegedly ran by and slapped her on the back of the head. Maister told the Daily News that Harris seemed "emotionally distressed" during the brief encounter. And while Maister does believe there is a real fear of violence against New York's Orthodox Jews, she thinks the Harris case is being politically exploited.

"I've been dismayed to watch politicians exploit what happened, to use it against bail reform. I want [Harris] to get treatment and not be subject to money bail," she told the Daily News.

Actions of some sort need to be taken to make sure Harris doesn't continue to assault people. Federal charges for slapping three women is a disproportionate response.