Bail reform supporters address “misconceptions” about changes coming January 1

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Bail reform advocate Khalil Cumberbatch speaks during a rally in the state Capitol in 2018. Cumberbatch was back in Albany this week to address criticisms of the coming changes in the state’s criminal justice system and pre-trial process, beginning on Jan. 1, 2020.

A roundtable discussion was held in Albany today to discuss the upcoming impacts of the New York’s bail reform, set to go into effect January 1, 2020.

Panelists included Nicole Triplett, policy counselor for the New York Civil Liberties Union; Erin Leigh George, civil rights campaigns director for Citizen Action New York; Amy Jones, a Capital Region organizer for Citizen Action New York, and Khalil Cumberbatch, chief strategist for New Yorkers United for Justice.

“This legislation will have monumental effects on New Yorkers who sit in a jail cell not because they have been accused of a crime but because of the size of their bank account,” Cumberbatch said.

“This is a critical moment to address a statewide issue,” George added. “This is not just a downstate issue.”

George explained that the reforms change a number a critical, “outdated” components in New York’s criminal justice system. First and foremost, she said, it reduces the system’s reliance on money, with the vast majority of criminal charges soon requiring a cashless bail.

The new bail system also relies more on what George called a “cite and release” system, in which suspects are issued appearance tickets for low-level offenses, avoiding the “traumatic” and “disruptive” system in which they are forced to spend the night in jail.

With the average cost of pretrial jailing being more than $300 a night, the current system is costly, not only on the personal lives of suspects supposedly presumed innocent, but also on taxpayers.

The new reforms will also limit the use of electronic monitoring, which has increased 140 percent over the past decade. Additionally, judges now must make all pretrial decisions part of the official record and issue court reminders of important dates to defendants and their attorneys.

“New York is close to the bottom in terms of making the pretrial process transparent,” said Nicole Triplett, of NYCLU. “A guilty plea is a surrendering of a constitutional right. That decision should be informed.”

Thursday’s roundtable discussion of criminal justice reforms in Albany comes two weeks after police and prosecutors held a series of press events across New York on November 21 to warn of potential dangers when changes take effect on January 1.

The law enforcement community argues that the bail reform does not give judges enough discretion in terms of determining a suspect’s flight risk, and detaining them appropriately. They claim that the new regulations will be costly to local governments, as no state funding has been allocated for implementation.

Police agencies and district attorneys have voiced support for comprehensive bail reform, but are asking legislators to slow the process down, and allow for more adequate consultation with law enforcement before implementing large-scale changes.

However, proponents of bail reform say that the system has been corrupted, and has become a mechanism for detainment, rather than it was originally intended, as a way of releasing suspects, who are still presumed innocent until convicted.

Large cash bails place large financial burdens on suspects already in dire situations, and rip families apart when the bail cannot be made. It does not encourage the presumption of innocence, and puts pressure on suspects to make a confession, regardless of whether they perpetrated a crime, or not.

“We need to begin to redefine what public safety looks like,” said Amy Jones of Citizen Action New York. “Public safety [should be about] keeping families together. Public safety isn’t recreating the same patterns, generation [after] generation.”

Jones has her own experiences with the bail system, and spoke about them at length on Thursday, before reporters and advocates.

A former drug addict, Jones was unable to pay a $1,000 bail set for her more than 20 years ago when her daughter was only an infant. Her daughter was subsequently sent to California to be with her birth father — a man Jones hardly knew — while Jones was sent to jail to await trial. After her daughter’s father died, the girl was placed in the custody of her father’s wife, a woman Jones never met.

“This ripped my family apart forever,” Jones said. “In black and brown communities we are historically over-policed. We are occupied. It looks like these communities commit crimes at a higher rate, but they don’t. There’s no such thing as ‘black-on-black’ crime, only crimes of proximity in poor communities.”

Opponents of the coming reforms say they are a threat to public safety by releasing potentially dangerous suspects back on the street without bail. The panel on Thursday, however, urged the public to consider that this may be fear mongering by opponents of the legislation.

“Cash bail is intended to be a mechanism for release,” said George. “But over time this has been corrupted.” She notes that the suspects of the crimes soon to be on the cashless bail list are supposed to be presumed innocent, and that cash bail is historically what has allowed their release following an arrest. Judges will now use resources other than cash bail to ensure those charged with a crime will return to court.

“White New Yorkers are two times more likely to be released prior to trial,” said Triplett of the NYCLU. “More needs to be done, but this is a good first step.”

Critics have argued that the coming bail and pre-trial reforms will be costly for New York taxpayers, and that the state has failed to adequately budget for the implementation of the new reform.

To this point, Cumberbatch responded that New York state has the second highest wrongful conviction rate of any state, and that New York has paid out more than $600 million in wrongful conviction reparations. This all falls on taxpayers, not attorneys or police officers.

“It’s a complete fallacy that the system is perfect, and that it is somehow going to go into disarray come January 1,” Cumberbatch said.

“Bad policy is when we close state mental hospitals, fail to fund community health projects and then funnel those people into jails,” George said.