In early February, New York City’s largest police union declared a “public safety emergency,” allegedly in response to the rising crime rate, which its president linked, in part, to the landmark bail reform law that went into effect in January.
State Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy called the reforms “an assault on civilized society, public safety and law enforcement, and on criminal victims and the people and the taxpayers of the state of New York.”
But has the law really endangered public safety? An analysis by City&State New York looks at both sides of the argument.
The most compelling argument bail reform foes may have is that New York City’s crime rate jumped 16.9 percent in January, compared to January 2019. That’s a startling increase, larger than typical fluctuations in the city’s crime rate.
But other states, including New Jersey, have implemented bail reform without seeing a rise in crime. California completely abolished cash bail, and its crime rates remain at historic lows.
The new law eliminated cash bail for a wide range of offenses and forced judges to impose the least restrictive kind of pretrial supervision that is likely to ensure a defendant will come back to court.
According to researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, nearly 91 percent of new defendants will remain free under bail reform and up from 76% under the old laws.
That hasn’t stopped opponents from pulling out all the stops.
New York City Police Department Commissioner Dermot Shea denounced bail reform as a threat to public safety in an op-ed for The New York Times in late January.
The NYPD’s commanding officer of the 108th Precinct in Queens, Deputy Inspector Michael Gibbs, may have defied the rules against police officials lobbying when he urged citizens at a public meeting in Elmhurst to contact their representatives and complain about bail reform. Gibbs reportedly vowed to continue making similar statements, even after a council member’s senior staffer warned him that his behavior was inappropriate.
But are they right? The answer should be determined by looking at actual data over a long enough period to make meaningful comparisons, not a few cases highlighted by the New York Post. Individual anecdotes about people who allegedly committed crimes after being released without bail are not necessarily illuminating in a city of more than 8 million people – especially considering that they could have been released under the old rules if they had enough money.
It’s unclear if bail reform caused the increase in crime. And there’s evidence to suggest bail reform could reduce recidivism over the long haul.
The NYPD’s chief statistician, Chief Michael LiPetri, didn’t even mention bail reform in his analysis of January’s rise in robberies, assaults, shootings and car thefts. According to LiPetri, the jump in robberies was caused not by hardened serial criminals reoffending while already facing charges, but by teenagers stealing each other’s gadgets.
And while property crimes went up, the number of rapes and murders were both down from January 2019. LiPetri also remarked that people who had recently been released from prison on parole or probation – not pretrial defendants out on bail – accounted for an outsized share of January’s shootings.
Nor is the general trend toward locking up fewer of the accused brand new. The use of both pretrial detention and cash bail has been declining in New York City for many years, and crime continued to fall during that time.
“For the past two decades, New York City has reduced both its jail population and the use of cash bail, resulting in some of the lowest crime rates we have ever seen,” the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. “No correlation could be or should be made to reforms that have been in place for only one month.”
Regardless of the stats’ validity, Eterno thinks there are real problems with bail reform that need to be addressed. Like many law enforcement veterans, he worries that the new law might put dangerous people on the street where they can reoffend.
He noted that there were a large number of outstanding warrants in New York City even before bail reform, and he worries that the new law will only add to the backlog of people who don’t show up for court.
Other experts said that at least part of the recent crime spike represents real crimes that wouldn’t have happened without bail reform – but that’s not the final word on public safety. Michael Rempel, director of jail reform at the Center for Court Innovation, an organization that conducts original research and designs evidence-based programs to improve the functioning of the justice system, explained that a certain amount of extra crime is inevitable when you decrease pretrial detention dramatically as bail reform has done.
“Obviously if people are detained, they’re incapacitated,” he said. “They’re not in the community. So there’s no way around the reality that detaining people, by definition, reduces their likelihood of recidivism as long as they are detained.”