NY's criminal justice reforms should be left alone
New Yorkers care deeply about safety and justice. We need and deserve both.
But amid an uptick in crime and facing pressure from New York City Mayor Eric Adams and police unions, Gov. Kathy Hochul is floating a misguided new plan that sacrifices key criminal justice system reforms that have made New York more fair.
As lawmakers negotiate the state budget, they must refuse to take us back to so-called “tough on crime” policies from the Giuliani era that didn’t work then and won’t work now.
Before New York passed the Raise the Age law in 2017, nearly 28,000 16- and 17-year-olds were sent to criminal court each year to be tried as adults, with no rehabilitative or restorative programs that can transform lives. This was true even though forcing young people into adult court and adult jails does a worse job deterring rearrest and has lifelong consequences. Raise the Age doesn’t ignore lawbreaking; it simply treats teens as the young people they are, moving those accused of misdemeanors and some felonies to Family Court.
Undoing Raise the Age would mean losing future generations to the criminal justice system.
In 2019, legislators fixed the “blindfold” law, which kept people accused of crimes completely in the dark about critical evidence against them. When I worked as a lawyer at Legal Aid, we couldn’t see grand jury testimony of a key witness until the middle of trial. There was no way to prepare a proper defense.
Undoing evidence-sharing reforms would mean New Yorkers accused of a crime are forced into the system with one hand tied behind their back.
When state leaders passed bail reform in 2019, it brought New York closer to the ideal that no one should be held in jail awaiting trial just because they can’t buy their way out. Bail reform has allowed tens of thousands to maintain their jobs, take care of their families, and manage their health care. Contrary to widespread fearmongering, evidence shows that bail reform is not responsible for a spike in violent crime. Close to 98% of people released under the law were not rearrested for a violent felony.
Undoing bail reform would put legally innocent people’s lives at risk in dangerous jails.
But the governor’s 10-point plan would go even further.
It would allow judges, for the first time in state history, to set bail based on someone’s perceived “dangerousness.” Evidence shows this doesn't work and in jurisdictions that do it, “dangerousness” becomes a proxy for race and poverty. Research even shows that pretrial detention can increase crime, because its life-altering disruptions make future contact with police more likely.
The proposed plan would also recklessly expand Kendra’s Law, making it easier for judges to forcibly medicate and institutionalize certain people with mental health issues. This ignores what studies have shown: Court orders don’t work, but quality treatment does. And there isn’t nearly enough treatment like supportive housing and wraparound services for people who seek it out.
To deliver public safety while also delivering on justice, leaders must look to the evidence, listen to directly impacted people, and build upon the reforms that make New York’s criminal justice system fairer. New York needs resources for violence prevention programs, increased mental health services, supportive and affordable housing, substance use programs, restorative justice programs, and support for survivors of violence.
We must focus on proven solutions that reduce crime — not a politically motivated retreat from what is right.
This guest essay was originally published in Newsday.