After someone is arrested, wrongfully or not, they face the same pretrial system as everyone else.
However, not everyone is treated the same — especially when it comes to money.
Despite a rollback of some of its provisions, New York State’s landmark reform of the money bail system has gone a long way towards ending the “criminalization” of poverty, a panel of justice researchers and activists said Wednesday.
The Bail Elimination Act which became law in January 2020 ended money bail for misdemeanors and most non-violent felonies. A subsequent amendment passed last spring in response to a lobbying effort by police, victims’ rights groups and state attorneys reduced the types of offenses exempted by the law.
But experts said early data indicated the law has already significantly reduced incarceration numbers in a system that disproportionately affected people of color.
“[It has caused] a profound impact on justice in New York—a sea change,” Michael Gianaris, Deputy Majority Leader of the New York State Senate and author of the original act, told a webinar organized by John Jay College’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report.
Sen. Gianaris, a Democrat from the borough of Queens, N.Y., called the law “the most dramatic” justice reform in the country.
Nevertheless, the issue of scrapping cash bail continues to stir up heated controversy.
It’s on the target list of “law and order” advocates in New York and elsewhere in the country during this year’s election cycle, with police groups and other opponents charging that softening bail requirements has already fueled an increase in crime.
Researchers told the webinar that such arguments were based on cherry-picking data, and warned journalists and the public not to get taken in by them just because they were advanced by supposedly reliable authorities like police.
“Law enforcement has always (gotten) a free ride, but they’re no less subject to their biases,” said Insha Rahman, director of strategy and new initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice.
Rahman traced the roots of the traditional bail system to a popular conception that individuals accused of a crime needed to be held in custody before trial or subjected to stiff financial bonds not only to ensure they appeared for trial—but for public safety.
“We’ve collated public safety with incarceration, but incarceration can also harm public safety,” she said, pointing out that it can ensnare individuals in a system that destroys their livelihoods and families.
That’s exactly what happened to Amy Jones, a justice activist, who told her own gripping story at the webinar to illustrate how people of color were disproportionately impacted by bail requirements.
Jones explained that she was born addicted to opiates, and between the ages of 5 and 12, was sex-trafficked until her abuser died. At 18, she “aged out” of the foster care system, and found herself quickly shuffling through homeless shelters and rehab centers.
At 19, Jones was pregnant with her first child, but the government declared she made too much money at $9/hour working at a bank to qualify for healthcare and social services.
In an act of desperation, Jones committed what she described as a “survival crime” and stole from the bank where she worked. This began another cycle — one with local jails and federal prison that was intertwined with the bail system.
“[That’s how] poverty becomes criminalized,” Jones declared.
Since her release, she has been among the leaders of the fight to reform New York’s bail system—a struggle which she said was an effort to help the most vulnerable reclaim their identity and humanity.
Her advocacy, she said, stems from a “lifetime of healing from trauma.”
One problem, she pointed out, is that the media often distorts the issues behind bail reform, scaring the public into believing that “these people” need to be thrown in prisons.
“These people are me,” she said. “they have stories and context.”
Khalil Cumberbatch, another panelist and former incarceree who is now a research fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, chimed in:
“These people are brothers, uncles, mothers, and sisters.”
He continued: “How do we deal with them? Deal with them the way you would want your family to be dealt with, with a level of humanity regardless of what the charges are.”
Cumberbatch cautioned it was important to remember that the person charged with a crime have not been found guilty of a crime; and that bail is simply “a leverage tool” to make sure the person returns for their court date.
“Cash bail has been used as a tool to punish people who are legally innocent,” Cumberbatch said.
And, Cumberbatch said, the public and media routinely forget that fact.
‘Fear Mongering’ and Bail Reform
But fear tactics continue to influence the public debate, the webinar was told.
A poll taken soon after the bail reform was enacted found 49 percent of New Yorkers surveyed agreeing with the statement that the law was “bad” for communities.
The media covered stories of newly freed defendants who went on to commit more crimes.
“If we don’t repeal this bill, it is just going to be lawlessness across this whole state,” said one New York legislator.
But the webinar was told there were no data that came close to justifying the warning.
Panelists noted that data about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on crime rates also had to be factored in.
“We cannot understand the full impact [of bail reform] yet,” said Erica Bond, policy director of the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College.
Wednesday’s sessions were the first of a two-part webinar on bail reform, Bail Reform in New York: What Happens Next?, organized with the support of Arnold Ventures. The second part is scheduled for Sept. 23.
Register for the second part at this link.
TCR Staff writer Andrea Cipriano contributed to this report.