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Don't Believe the Hype; Bail Reform is Good Policy and Good Politics

Speaker Heastie & Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins (photo: State Senate)

In 2019, Democrats in New York were feeling pretty good. New York City had its first two-term Democratic mayor since the 1980s. Democrats controlled the Governor’s mansion in Albany and every other statewide office. We controlled the State Assembly and the State Senate – both with commanding majorities.

Washington, of course, was a mess. One party was in the thrall of a former game show host, and they were too afraid of upsetting him to get anything done. Say what you will about New York’s one-party rule. But here, at least, there was a real opportunity to make progress for people in need.

So that year, Democrats in Albany took a big swing. They finally reformed the cash bail laws that had, for decades, made a mockery of our criminal justice system and didn't make us any safer. Prior to these reforms, many New Yorkers accused of low-level crimes ostensibly had two options. They could sit in jail while they waited for their day in court, unable to work or prepare their defense. Or they could buy their way out.

But those options were only available to people with money. The ones who could afford to pay up of course did so. But many couldn’t – and so a disastrous, two-tiered criminal justice system took hold: one for the rich, and another for the poor. No New Yorker was any safer for rich people buying their way out, or poor people languishing in jail.

The reforms took away cash bail for low-level offenses, while maintaining it for alleged very serious or violent ones. They reunited countless New Yorkers with their families. They kept people who hadn’t been convicted of anything out of Rikers Island and other hellish jails. They finally made an unfair, racist system a little fairer. 

And then the storm came.

I’m a longtime political consultant in New York, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Republicans and their media allies responded with manufactured rage from even before the law was changed and never stopped. They ignored the practicality of the reforms, which kept those accused of the most violent crimes in jail and leveled the playing field for everyone else. Every crime committed anywhere, by anyone, was suddenly a direct result of bail reform. They spent millions of dollars running bail-related attack ads before the 2020 elections — an attempt to terrify New Yorkers and benefit from a national crime spike.

Republicans told anyone who’d listen that voters would punish Democrats for their overreach and take away their 40-seat majority in the State Senate.

When the dust settled that November, Democrats had won 42 seats in the 63-seat Senate. The majority became a supermajority.

Maybe New York Republicans quietly blamed their failed, unpopular president. But they might have had a clue what voters were really experiencing if they had looked at the data. Bail reform was working. Study after study found no correlation between bail reform and any increase in crime. The New York Post examined NYPD data on gun violence and found that less than 1% of the 11,000 people released from jail in early 2020, when bail reform first went into effect, were involved in a shooting. More recently, as Nassau County leaders falsely blamed any crime on bail reform, their own study found that few are re-arrested.

Instead of following the data, Republicans tripled down.

Lee Zeldin’s run for governor was the darkest campaign in recent memory. He talked about bail reform almost every day. And he had help; Republicans poured millions in campaign donations to groups supporting him.

With no game show host to drag them down, Republicans were even more confident this year. They were sure a red wave would crash on New York – one that would cut a gash in the Assembly and Senate majorities, and maybe even sweep Zeldin into the Governor’s mansion.

Once again, it didn’t happen. Democrats won 41 seats in the State Senate this year. With one race heading to a recount, it could be 42. The Assembly supermajority is as commanding as ever. And Lee Zeldin lost by hundreds of thousands of votes.

Here’s what that means: after three years of predictions that bail reform would sink those who passed it, the Democratic Party has gained representation in state government.

Crime, of course, is still an animating issue for voters across the state. And Republicans likely won tight races for the House of Representatives by exploiting it. Many of those races were winnable; it’s hard to escape the feeling that we should have done even better. But the House of Representatives didn’t pass bail reform. Democrats in the State Legislature did – and New Yorkers, in two straight elections, ignored a tsunami of persuasion to reward them for it.

Politics is a tough business. But one thing remains true: voters will support you for doing the right thing, no matter how much money is spent to convince them not to. New Yorkers have asked for solutions on public safety, not scare tactics. They’re ready to address what’s really driving crime. Ignoring the data gets us nowhere.

With next year’s legislative session around the corner, Democrats will have another chance to enact bold changes. There’s plenty left to do; our criminal legal system still targets people of color and the poor, and advocates are bursting with ingenious, practical solutions. Democrats in Albany should give those policies a fair hearing, and act decisively. The politics will work in their favor. Be brave.

Jason Ortiz is a Democratic political consultant and the co-founder of Moonshot Strategies. On Twitter @hotroddy95 & @MoonshotNYC.

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