Back to All Commentary

Rolling back bail reform won’t solve NY’s problems with crime. Here’s why

Since bail reform was passed in 2019, it has saved some of New York’s poorest families tens of millions of dollars, allowed thousands of people to contribute to their communities instead of risking their lives in deadly jails, and reduced our state’s addiction to the mass incarceration of people who are presumed innocent.

Yet critics of the groundbreaking reform don’t seem to care there’s no evidence bail reform has led to an increase in crime and they scarcely acknowledge that the reforms have already been rolled back twice. Instead, they blame bail reform — which eliminated money bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies — for every problem under the sun, and they ignore real solutions that would better protect community safety.

Now, Gov. Kathy Hochul is pushing for further rollbacks to be included in this year’s state budget, due to be passed by April 1. Her proposal would completely change the purpose of bail, dramatically transform decades of New York law, and trap thousands more legally-innocent people behind bars. Hochul’s plan would also sow the seeds of further racial bias and discrimination in our state’s already painfully unequal criminal legal system.

In her State of the State, the governor called for the elimination of the longstanding legal requirement that judges set the “least restrictive” condition that “will reasonably assure [a person’s] return to court,” which has always been the sole legal purpose of bail. Hochul explained her proposed changes as a way to provide clarity for judges. Yet, as a representative from the Office of Court Administration has testified to the state Senate, judges aren’t confused by the clear, decades-old least-restrictive standard.

In fact, the absence of a standard would only invite uncertainty. Hochul would eliminate this standard — which 33 other states also use — without providing any replacement to guide judges’ decisions. This would leave judges to guess how to apply the law, with the potential for racial bias to poison those decisions. The result will be thousands more mostly Black and brown, legally innocent New Yorkers held in jail and pressured to plead guilty so they can go back home.

You wouldn’t know it based on all the fearmongering, but bail reform is working. A report from quantifies some of the legislation’s benefits, including that 24,000 fewer people had bail set on their cases. Bail reform has also saved families $104 million in bail money that could have been leveraged or lost, and allowed people to spend 1.9 million nights at home that would have been spent in jail.

Most importantly, the reforms saved lives. They led to a 15% decrease in pretrial detention, including at a time when COVID made jails even more deadly than they usually are.

There is also no evidence to suggest that bail reform is responsible for any post-pandemic rise in crime. A recent analysis, for example found no impact on re-arrest rates after bail reform went into effect between 2019 and 2021, and a report this month from John Jay College even shows the reforms reduced the chances that someone would get arrested again.

Despite its proven benefits, bail reform continues to be relentlessly attacked. Hochul first gave in to political attacks by successfully rolling back the law last year, and now she’s pushing for changes that could make things even worse than they were before the 2019 law was passed.

Lawmakers should leave bail reform alone this session, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing they can do to improve community safety. We need real solutions that prevent crime from happening in the first place, like access to mental health care, housing, and education. Lawmakers should also fund proven approaches like restorative justice and violence interruption programs and provide more money to help survivors of violence.

Instead of rolling back bail reform, lawmakers should prioritize these proactive solutions that will make New York safer for everyone.

This piece was originally published in The Journal News

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union