New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has begun to host bail reform information sessions across the city to address concerns communities have about New York’s bail reform law that took effect in January. The information sessions come as backlash continues over bail reform and as New York State Senators continue talks of potential changes to the law.
The proposed changes were just one of the issues discussed during the information session held at The Point Community Development Corp. in Hunts Point, on Feb. 25. Williams and a panel of four bail reform advocates and program representatives answered questions sent in from audience members and also discussed the purpose of bail reform and the effect it is already having in the Bronx and New York City.
The new reform laws allow for defendants of low-level felonies and non-violent offenses to be released without bail, but with a court date. Defendants are now given more options to enter into pre-trial programs that provide legal help as well as incentives for defendants to return on their court date.
The bail reform law is aimed at cutting down on the number of people being detained in jail due to their inability to post bail.
Changes to the bail reform laws already proposed by some state senators would still eliminate cash bail but would expand the list of crimes that judges would be able to detain people for. Judges would also have more say in detaining defendants who they believe will not show up for their court dates.
Krystal Rodriguez, the jail reform deputy director for the Center for Court Innovation and one of the four panelists alongside Williams at the town hall, said that often when defendants miss a court date, it is not because they are trying to flee or avoid their obligations to the court.
“Sometimes they miss court because they couldn’t arrange for childcare, they sometimes miss court because they work jobs where they just can’t ask for a day off and get paid for that,” said Rodriguez. “They just don’t have those basic conveniences that many of us maybe don’t realize aren’t available to everyone.”
When asked about concerns over public safety and the potential of defendants let go without bail committing additional crimes, the panel said that in their experience it is a very rare occurrence. Bail reform, they all agreed, is working and a couple of instances, that they said has been highlighted by the media, does not indicate a trend or that bail reform is a flawed plan.
Elena Weissmann, the director for The Bronx Freedom Fund, said that bail often penalizes low-income individuals who cannot post bail as they await their trial.
“The need for bail reform is not the root problem here,” said Weissmann. “It is a symptom of a larger problem, which is about racism and classism and the criminalization of poverty.”
Bail reform, said Scott Levy, the chief policy counsel for The Bronx Defenders, encourages city leaders to address underlying issues that cause people to commit low level and non-violent offenses.
“We’re actually addressing those things, rather than throwing pretrial incarceration at a problem,” said Levy. “And really, what we know is that pretrial incarceration not only doesn’t fix the problem, it makes things worse, right?”