The Democratic legislators and leaders in New York, who championed the rights of the innocent to remain free until proven guilty and to be provided with due process of the law while awaiting their day in court, are now reneging on the newly passed bail reform legislation in New York State.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who alluded to “anti-Semitic hate crimes,” and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, whose leadership was influential in getting this historic legislation to a vote in the Legislature, are both on board to make changes to the laws. As a Jew rooted in a progressive community and raised in an Orthodox one, I can say we are all united in the fear and heavy hearts we carry within. The bail reform laws, which will restore some level of justice to the poor if enacted properly, are not the culprit.
Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio are both citing a recent wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes as reasons to change the current law. Bail reform is not about that or the shameful number of crimes being reported in local upstate papers and here in the New York Post as proof that our public safety is on the brink of being wiped out. Sheriffs and district attorneys in upstate communities are scaring the public with acts of burglary and domestic violence as being not punishable because of bail reform.
Conflating egregious crimes like the almost-deadly stabbings upstate in Monsey with the misdemeanor and nonviolent low-level felony crimes covered under the no-bail provisions of the new law is specious. The Monsey assailant, Grafton Thomas, is being charged with federal hate crimes and held in prison without bail.
Sensationalizing “punching” and “slapping” behavior and equating it with anti-Semitic crime, which rose 63 percent in New York City in 2019, according to the Police Department, alongside anti-Muslim and other hate-based criminal activity that continues to plague our nation, ignores the roots of this climate of terror. While anti-Semitism is many hundreds of years old, the current climate of belligerence toward perceived “others” brings us back to the Charlottesville rally in 2017, where our president ignominiously equated the white nationalist marchers with those brave enough to confront their malignant presence on the streets of their city in Virginia.
One of those “nice people on both sides,” James Fields, is now serving a sentence of life in prison, plus 419 years, for driving his car into a crowd and murdering Heather Heyer, who was standing up for the right to live in a world free of this wretched violent brand of racism the marchers were brandishing with Nazi chants.
What is objectionable would be to unravel New York’s noble effort to reform a system in which the use of money bail created two tiers of justice: one that favors the rich, who walk free of their crimes — Harvey Weinstein, the Oscar-winning producer, has been free on $2 million bail, as he awaited trial for criminal sex crimes against dozens of women — and the other, for the poor, the homeless and the mentally ill, who can’t afford transportation money to get to court, let alone bail.
Gov. Cuomo would be better advised to fund the counties’ judicial courts to properly enact the new laws which provide pretrial services to assure a principle’s return to court, entail more paperwork to determine and justify the types of warrants to issue and conditions for release, and resources for district attorneys to comply with Discovery Laws, to prepare and deliver evidence to defendants in a timely manner.
New Jersey was one of the first to acknowledge that the use of money bail discriminated against the poor and then took action to overhaul its criminal justice system. They funded the new programming in the state’s budget and created this “strong technological infrastructure that automates the criminal justice process from arrest all the way to the person’s sentence and beyond.”
The fears raised by bail reform opponents were not realized. Research indicates that where pretrial release rates have increased, new criminal arrests and missed court appointments have not increased. Court appearance rates remained high while the rate of alleged new criminal activity stayed low. Defendants released under bail reform were no more likely to be charged with a new crime or fail to appear in court than defendants released on bail under the old system.
Jeanette Walowitz is a volunteer leader for both Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice and Bend the Arc Jewish Action, an adjunct English professor at Berkeley College and a retired high school teacher who lives in Great Neck, LI.