Pretty much the minute the clock struck midnight on December 31st and the New Year began horror stories have been filtering out of the great state of New York. Not traffic horror stories or horror stories about the price of apartments in the East Village. Horror stories related to the state’s newly enacted bail reform legislation. As predicted by just about everyone with a lick of common sense releasing suspected criminals immediately without assigning even minimal bail has caused a spike in recidivism, a spike in assaults, burglaries, and car thefts and emotional calls to undo the madness before it's too late for the Empire State.
You may think these calls for sanity are coming from some bondsman who suddenly finds himself with little to do. But you’d be wrong. They’re coming from prosecutors, law enforcement, average citizens who suddenly find themselves under assault and politicians from both sides of the political aisle. In other words, calls to enact swift and dramatic changes to New York's bail reform legislation are coming from the type of broad-based coalition bail reformers could never muster when they tried to fool residents of Jefferson County, Arapahoe County, and Denver County into adopting bail reform in Colorado.
As more and more horror stories have made it to the front page the public has become increasingly vocal regarding their opposition to bail reform. This rising tide of support for change has shaken even formerly staunch supporters of the reform movement like New York City Mayor Bill de Basio. It was the mayor, working closely with Governor Cuomo, who helped shepherd bail reform through the political maze that is New York politics. At one point he himself dismissed opponents of bail reform as “fear mongers”. Today, however, de Basio is singing a very different tune.
So what was it that set a fire under the mayor and caused him to change course so dramatically less than a month after bail reform officially went into effect?
Maybe it was the case of Paul Barbaritano of Albany who was released without bail after being accused of suffocating and stabbing to death 29-year-old mother Nicole Jennings. Prosecutors argued in vain that he represented a clear and present danger but the judge in the case released him anyway, claiming his hands were tied by the new bail reform legislation.
Or maybe it was the case of Westbury resident Gerard Conway. Conway vandalized and burglarized 4 different stores in Westbury, was arrested and then immediately released without bail. Hours later he was back at it, breaking into another Westbury business and stealing the cash registers.
Or maybe the mayor changed his mind after hearing about the case of Jonathan Martin who was arrested after breaking into a suburban New York home in the middle of the night and demanding money from a terrified teenager. The teenager escaped and called the police and Martin was arrested. But, because New York is now a kinder, gentler place for dangerous criminals, he was immediately released. His response to being released? He returned to the police station several hours later and smashed the window on the front door.
We think the breaking point for Bill came when he was faced with a group of angry Jewish residents in Brooklyn last week. They demanded to know why a woman who had assaulted Orthodox Jewish women on two occasions just days apart was released from custody without bail. The mayor emerged from that meeting having finally had enough and called for change.
"Bail reform needs to be amended" he said, leaving no doubt about his new stance. "I believe this strongly". It was a startling about-face for someone who had previously brushed off suggestions that anything could go wrong with bail reform the way it had passed the legislature. And it marked a turning point in the several years’ long debate in New York about the need and potential shape of bail reform. But de Blasio is not the only politician calling for change.
Glenville, NY state Senator Jim Tedisco took note of de Blasio’s change of heart and declared the state legislature should do what the mayor suggests and revisit bail bonding reform. This marked a rare occasion of bipartisan agreement in a deeply divided political climate. Both the republican Tedisco and the Democrat de Blasio called for judges to be given greater leeway in deciding who is detained and who is released.
The question now is whether Governor Andrew Cuomo will follow through on his own promise to revisit the law. In the wake of overwhelming evidence that bail reform wasn’t working as intended the governor made some off the cuff remarks in January that suggested he was open to change. He called bail reform “a work in progress” and said certain aspects of the current law needed to be changed. But he was short on specifics and has been largely silent on the matter for the past couple of weeks.
Perhaps de Blasio’s change of heart will give Cuomo the political cover he needs to pull an about-face of his own. Right now the jury is still out. But as Tedisco reminded voters "If this bail reform law is not fixed… it's going to be 365 days of carnage on our streets…"
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