A new state law in New York allows judges to set bail for more criminal charges than originally allowed under a sweeping 2019 reform that largely did away with cash bail for many people awaiting trial.
Several criminal justice reform groups and state lawmakers raised concern at a Thursday virtual news conference that the amended law, which goes into effect in July, will land more people behind bars amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Legislators rolled back bail reform knowing that it would put more people in jail," said Roger Clark, a community leader with the #HALTsolitary campaign and VOCAL-NY. “It’s unconscionable.”
Last year, the Democratic-led Legislature passed a landmark state law that ruled out money bail and pretrial detention for most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges.
Supporters pointed out that cash bail allows the wealthy to avoid jail while awaiting charges and hoped the reform would prevent others from repeating the fate of Bronx resident Kalief Browder, who was 16 when he was sent to Rikers after being accused of stealing a backpack. He spent three years there, nearly two in solitary confinement, before eventually being released without facing a trial. He later killed himself.
But when the law went into effect in January, law enforcement agencies across New York raised alarm about public safety as the state's jails and prisons began releasing individuals awaiting trial.
Republicans and other critics raised concern over individual cases of people committing new offenses after being released under the bail law.
In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democratic legislative leaders agreed to amend the law to allow judges to set bail for more crimes, including misdemeanor bail jumping.
The expanded list of non-violent felonies eligible for bail and remand now includes: certain hate crimes, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, knowingly participating in a criminal enterprise, first-degree criminal possession or sale of a controlled substance, vehicular assault, criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds, money laundering and criminally negligent homicide.
New York City saw 40% fewer people behind bars from April 2019 to March 2020 — a drop of close to 2,000 people, according to the Center for Court Innovation's May report on the bail law.
And the state's jails saw a 45% drop in pretrial detention from April 2019 to February 2020, according to the report.
It’s unclear what effect the newly amended law will have statewide.
But New York City alone could see a 16% increase in individuals eligible for bail, according to the New York-based Center for Court Innovation, which looked at 2019 cases where a city judge ordered bail or remand.
Cuomo has defended the amended law as an improvement.
“The facts are Gov. Cuomo has not only advocated for — but actually achieved — historic reforms to the criminal justice system," Cuomo spokesman Jason Conwall said. "New York is the least incarcerative and safest large state in the nation and the Governor closed more prisons than any governor in state history, overseeing an unprecedented 37% decline in the incarcerated population.”
As the pandemic peaked in April, his top aide Melissa DeRosa said the change would not take effect for 90 days and would not necessarily “translate into more people” behind bars.
New York City has reported the deaths of three incarcerated individuals and eleven corrections staffers due to COVID-19, while 312 inmates and 1,418 corrections staffers have tested positive.