State lawmakers wrongly bowed to law enforcement pressure on bail reform, the author writes (photo: governor's office)
Predictably, and disappointingly, the New York State Legislature rolled back last year’s historic and hard fought bail reforms at the eleventh hour. It was an act of cruelty after providing our communities the briefest of reprieves following the historic enactment of bail reform just three months ago, on January 1.
Less than two minutes of floor debate allowed racists and prison profiteers to win in their crusade to diminish the reforms, condemning thousands more black, brown, and poor New Yorkers to our broken system of mass incarceration. While the debate was over quickly, the consequences will be felt for generations.
The changes decrease public safety and increase New York’s role in mass incarceration. More misdemeanors are back on the books as eligible for money bail, as are several non-violent felonies like grand larceny in the first degree and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the first degree. In practice, the law blames poor people for the conditions our governments impose on them, allowing factors like lack of stable housing and employment to increase the likelihood of destabilization, arrest, and pretrial detention.
District Attorneys will almost certainly exploit the expansion of bail eligible cases, maximizing their ability to jail the poor pre-trial by upcharging and overcharging incidents as hate crimes or domestic violence. Worse, the rollbacks will result in at minimum hundreds, possibly thousands, more to be incarcerated — possibly preventing the supposedly imminent closure of the Rikers Island jails.
From the moment the clock struck midnight on January 1 and New York’s bail reforms went into effect, critics of the changes and defenders of the status quo went on the attack, determined to undo key measures of justice. They painted a false picture of chaos and anarchy throughout the state, perpetuating the assumption that not forcing legally innocent poor people to remain in jail would make our communities unsafe.
The myth that bail reform would lead to lawless anarchy was absurdly false, but effective at creating a bogeyman. The reality is the now-rolled back bail laws worked. For every cherry-picked, misrepresented case in the media, thousands of black, brown, and poor people were being released pending trial like their wealthy, white counterparts had been for so long. They returned to court, and rates of violent crime did not increase. Lives were saved. Families were spared the intergenerational violence and trauma of incarceration. Housing and jobs were kept. Communities are safer because people with mental health and substance use issues had opportunities for treatment, instead of suffering the cruel, dual punishments of inadequate healthcare while locked in a jail cell.
If the opposition’s aim was merely to create safe and healthy communities, they would be working alongside criminal justice reform advocates to expand public health interventions, affordable housing, education and community-based programs. Opponents of bail reform had a different aim than public safety. Their goal is to reclaim more control over the justice system that remains filled with black, brown and poor New Yorkers. This twisted investment in systemic racism and addiction to punishment comes at the cost of real human lives.
There are legislators who will look at this archaic return to yesteryear and try to tell you the rollbacks aren’t as bad as it could’ve been. That they saved us from “dangerousness” being added to the books, but we know better. One missing tool in a toolbox of oppressive measures isn’t enough to stop a system that is swallowing entire communities whole.
Do not be fooled. There are no heroes here. Any call that these changes are minor is an act of deceit. When taken from the state Capitol building and brought into our criminal courtrooms, the increase in incarceration will be anything but minor.
What is happening here in New York isn’t new. When slavery was abolished, racists adapted and we were met with the Black Codes and convict leasing. When that system as it existed “fell” we eventually received mandatory minimums, three strikes, stop-and-frisk, and broken windows policing. It is no different today. As we fight to dismantle our racist oppressive systems, our opponents are working tirelessly to build new supports to continue to prop them up.
In these recent state budget negotiations, New York’s elected officials had the choice to stand strong and defend bail reform. Instead they chose to retreat and uphold a system of mass punishment -- based on the lies of the very people who directly profit from incarceration and state violence against black, brown, and poor people.
Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature failed the test of moral courage.
Tiffany Cabán is a national organizer with the Working Families Party. On Twitter @tiffany_caban.