By DAN QUART, HARVEY EPSTEIN and LINDA B. ROSENTHAL
JAN 08, 2020
Today, anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise in New York and around the country. In New York City, anti-Semitic hate crimes increased by 21% in the past year alone.
As Jewish legislators, we are deeply concerned about the rash of anti-Semitic attacks. We also know that we combat anti-Semitism through education and community dialogue, not incarceration, which is why we are deeply concerned about recent attempts to use these attacks as a rationale for dismantling New York’s brand new bail reform law.
While it’s important for us to untangle the truly heinous crimes from incidences of people with mental illnesses lashing out, it’s also important to ensure defendants in all of these cases are treated like human beings while they await prosecution. Rolling back the landmark criminal justice reforms that were accomplished in the last legislative session — which limited potential use of cash bail to a list of specified, mostly violent crimes, while requiring pretrial release for all others — is not the answer.
Neither is expanding the list of charges eligible for hate-crime status, which will encourage prosecutors to overcharge, or permitting judges to use their discretion to jail defendants awaiting trial based on a subjective sense of dangerousness.
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None of this backsliding will address the underlying issue or make communities targeted by hate any safer. In cases where serious violence takes place, the new bail law already has been and can be applied to set bail on a suspect.
The old cash bail system distorted justice and caused irreparable harm to thousands. For decades, New York’s money bail system violated the presumption of innocence, criminalized poverty and devastated families and communities.
While wealthy people paid bail and went home, poor and working-class people languished in jail for days, months or years, sometimes putting pressure on them to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. Many of us know the story of Kalief Browder, who was accused of stealing a backpack and suffered on Rikers Island as a teenager for nearly three years because he could not afford a $3,000 bail before his case was finally dismissed.
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Despite the critical need for this reform, change-resistant district attorneys, right-wing media and regressive politicians are now exploiting anti-Semitism to stir up opposition to bail reform. We understand, and feel intimately, our communities’ fear and pain. We also know that a system of money bail and pretrial detention does not keep us safe. Pretrial jailing — which can cause people to lose their jobs, housing and health care — destabilizes families and communities, exacerbating root causes of harm and violence. Incarceration will not solve the problem of anti-Semitic violence.
Like all Jews, the persecution of our ancestors is embedded deep within our DNA, a shared identity rooted in fear. As Jewish legislators, we feel acutely the deep fear of the people in the communities we represent and of all Jewish people across the state. As a result, we feel a special responsibility to help lead during these dark times. Combating these heinous crimes and holding those responsible accountable are among our top priorities.
As Jews, we are obligated to strive for justice. Deuteronomy commands us: justice, justice you shall pursue.
Even more specifically, Psalm 23 directs us: Do not deny justice to a poor man when he appears in court. That’s bail reform in a nutshell: ensuring that the rich are not permitted to purchase their pretrial freedom while the poor languish in prison because they can’t afford to pay bail.
We must actively continue to pursue justice in the new legislative session. We have to repeal 50-a, also known as the police secrecy law, end long-term isolated confinement, reform our parole system, legalize marijuana and automate expungement of outdated criminal records. In this new year, we are obligated to inscribe in law justice, fairness and dignity for all. We can’t begin by backsliding on bail.