Proposed NY Bail Law Amendments Target People of Color, Warns Ex-Prosecutor

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Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr

As the debate over New York’s new bail reform law continues to heat up, a former prosecutor and sheriff claims that proposed amendments utilizing risk-assessment tools to determine eligibility for bail would “undermine” the purpose of the measure by adding racial bias.

“Risk-assessment tools feel scientific, but studies show that the tools end up targeting people of color for pretrial incarceration because they incorrectly predict reoffending,” warned Jim Manfre, who served as an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County, N.Y. and spent eight years as sheriff of Flagler County, Fl.

In a scathing op ed published this week in the Albany Times Union, Manfre warned his colleagues in law enforcement not to “surrender” to misleading rhetoric suggesting that the law will endanger public safety.

“As a prosecutor and sheriff, I have seen justice systems waste tremendous amounts of time and money incarcerating people who pose little risk to public safety,” Manfre wrote. “So I was proud to see New York start the new year by refocusing resources on the greatest threats to safety by implementing common-sense bail reform.”

Under the law, which went into effect Jan. 1, money bail has been eliminated for most offenses.

But following an outcry from law enforcement groups, prosecutors and victim support organizations, the New York State Assembly is considering several amendments.

In what is likely to be a test case for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ambitious program of justice reforms, and watched closely by other states considering bail reform, the amendments are being fiercely argued by legislators in advance of next month’s budget—where the new changes may be tacked on.

Jim Manfre

Jim Manfre. Photo courtesy Flager County Sheriff’s Office.

According to Manfre, amending the law would be a shortsighted response to “misleading” rhetoric in the media that has blamed it for crimes committed by some defendants who were released without bail before trial.

“New Yorkers can rest easy knowing that the sky will not fall,” wrote Manfre. “BrooklynNew Jersey, and Connecticut have already made similar reforms and violent crime has not increased,” wrote Manfre, who is a member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of sheriffs, prosecutors, police, and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.

“Some people might be surprised to hear that our justice system directs most of our resources toward low-level crime,” Manfre added.

“Today, in jurisdictions that haven’t implemented bail reform, even people charged with nonviolent offenses who pose little flight risk often have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in order to be released on bail until their case is heard.

“Since so many people arrested today are living in povertytwo-thirds of the people in jail are being held pretrial, mostly because they couldn’t afford a relatively small amount of bail money.”

Manfre said his law enforcement experience, which included stints working with the Major Offense Bureau in Bronx, N.Y., made clear to him that money bail had little to do with ensuring public safety.

When he was sheriff of Flagler County, Fl., he implemented a bail diversion program that effectively reduced the number of individuals held in jail before trial because they could not afford bail as low as $250.

“New York’s bail reform simply removes income from the issue of public safety,” he said/

“Opponents complain because it allows people charged with most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies to go to work while they await trial, but this was always true for defendants with means; bail reform simply allows those without money to do the same. And the reform still allows judges to hold anyone pretrial for violent felonies.

“It delivers the same level of justice to everyone, regardless of income.”

Manfre said the reform will also prevent recidivism by strengthening pretrial services which provide mental health treatment and counseling aimed at guiding [individuals] “on a positive path and [keeping] them out of the justice system permanently.”

Instead, the risk assessment tools considered in the amendment could provide a misleading picture of a defendant.

“For example, they see that a black man whom police have searched dozens of times has prior arrests, unlike a white man from the suburbs who has never been searched,” wrote Manfre.

That effectively means “they would effectively use a person’s zip code to determine whether someone goes home or sits in jail awaiting trial,” he added.

Manfre called on New York authorities not to surrender to “scare tactics.”

“I know my old law enforcement colleagues can tell the difference between a gang leader and a teenager from a low-income family who stole a jacket,” he wrote.

“I’m proud that New York’s pretrial system finally recognizes this difference and sets priorities accordingly. Lawmakers should not immediately surrender this progress.”

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