Across the country, a movement away from incarceration has been a rare point of consensus among Americans who can agree on little else.
Yet talking about reform is one thing. Doing the work — asking for public trust while emptying cells in jails and prisons — will be harder.
That’s what’s happening now in New York State, where landmark criminal justice reforms are set to go into effect on Jan. 1.
Beginning next year, people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies will in most cases be released without cash bail, pending their trials. In another reform, prosecutors will be required to disclose evidence to the defense within 15 days of an indictment instead of shortly before trial, a practice that prompted many a guilty plea before court proceedings even got underway.
Similar reforms in New Jersey and elsewhere have reduced jail populations without endangering public safety.
Yet, in New York, on the eve of the reforms coming into force, a familiar chorus of concern has piped up.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill wrote in an op-ed in May that the law would have a “significant negative impact on public safety.” His successor, incoming Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, expressed similar views this month.
Prosecutors and police unions across the state have issued ominous warnings. “Think this is wrong & insane? Then tell your politicians that this needs to be repealed ASAP!” the Oneida City Police Benevolent Association wrote in a Facebook post on Oct. 1.
In July, the New York Prosecutors Training Institute released audio of Jed Painter, a Nassau County assistant district attorney, training prosecutors on various ways to work with the police to subvert the spirit of the new law.
President Trump, who had no problem taking a victory lap over federal criminal justice reform, has been happy to whack his former home state. “So sad to see what is happening in New York where Governor Cuomo & Mayor DeBlasio are letting out 900 Criminals, some hardened & bad, onto the sidewalks of our rapidly declining, because of them, city,” he wrote on Twitter on Nov. 5. “The Radical Left Dems are killing our cities.”
Republicans in recent days have introduced legislation that would not only roll back the reforms, which were approved by the Legislature earlier this year, but go further. One bill, introduced by State Senator James Tedisco and Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, would put a one-year moratorium on the reforms.
Experience elsewhere and ample research show that there is no reason to believe New York’s reforms will lead to mayhem, or endanger the public.
In Philadelphia, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor and felony offenses in 2018, there has been no significant change in the percentage of people who show up for their court dates.
In New Jersey, which introduced its reforms in 2017, a report from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts found no increase in crime associated with the reforms. In fact, studies suggest the opposite may be true: that pretrial detention makes people likelier to commit future crimes.
Pretrial detention, which involves jailing people who have been arrested for a crime but not yet convicted of it, comes with enormous costs, to individuals and society. Studies show that those held before trial are likelier to lose their jobs, their homes and custody of their children. Pretrial detention costs the United States an estimated $14 billion each year.
Reform is crucial to shrinking New York’s jail population and closing the notorious jails at Rikers Island.
The focus should be on implementation: Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature failed to include funding to help enact the reforms, a choice that means local officials will have to step up.
Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, has pledged to use $100 million in forfeiture funds from investigations into major banks to pay for pretrial services, like criminal history checks and court date reminders, and supervised release programs in a stopgap measure.
Panic from the law-and-order crowd is nothing new in New York, which has often been surprisingly regressive on issues of criminal justice and policing.
There were the infamous Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s that put generations of black and Latino New Yorkers in jail for minor offenses.
There was the “tough-on-crime” approach of the 1980s and early 1990s, epitomized in the infamous ad Donald Trump took out in this newspaper in 1989, after a jogger was raped in Central Park. “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back the Police!” it read. Five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of the crime and served between six and 13 years.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly used to issue dire warnings that sharply reducing police stops of pedestrians under a practice known as stop-and-frisk would lead to an increase in crime. Their predictions turned out to be bunk — stops have plummeted, while crime remains at record lows.
That’s history worth considering as the old foes of reform sing their familiar tune.
Governor Cuomo, legislative leaders and Mayor Bill de Blasio, all of whom supported the reforms, should stand proudly behind them.
Prosecutors and police unions trying to thwart the will of the voters and undermine the public’s trust in long-overdue reforms should instead get to work making the change.