Feb 26 – Advocates, formerly incarcerated people, and lawmakers warned against overhauling the New York law before it has a chance to prove itself.
The battle over New York’s bail reform law, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, entered a combative new phase on Tuesday as supporters of the existing law flooded the state capitol building in Albany.
About 100 advocates, community members, and people who have been incarcerated because they couldn’t afford bail filled the offices of Democratic state senators who have said they will support an overhaul of the new bail law, which went into effect on Jan. 1.
The new plan would still abolish cash bail but add more types of crimes for which judges can detain people, and increase judges’ discretion in doing so. “We believe that this gets to the heart of the issues and that it is still progressive,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told Newsday of the proposal.
The protesters shut down the offices for about a half-hour until security was called. “We’re not asking for appointments,” noted Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaign director at VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform. “You’re with us or against us. If you’re against us, we’re going to make things hard for you.”
The protesters made “it really clear that there’s a political price to pay… if [lawmakers] capitulate,” Encalada-Malinowski said. “They’re making a political choice that that’s worth it. We’re up here basically saying, ‘No it’s not.’”
Darryl Herring was among those who crowded into lawmakers’ offices to defend the bail law. Beginning in 2015, he spent 18 months in the Rikers Island jail complex because he couldn’t afford to pay his $75,000 bail over a crime he said he didn’t commit. “That was a ransom, that wasn’t a bail,” he said. At the time he was applying for Social Security disability because he had a bad back. “There was no way of me coming up with $75,000.”
Spending so much time in jail was devastating for him. He was living in an emergency shelter and was just about to move into better housing when he was arrested. While he was in jail, he said he lost that spot along with all of his belongings in the shelter. “I literally had to come out and start all over again,” he said.
Had bail reform been in place, he said, “I’d have been functioning and still living my life, just returning to court.”
Stories like Herring’s are not getting most of the media attention, however. Instead, select cases of people who have been released and rearrested have made headlines. “I’m here because if stories are going to be told, you might as well tell the truth,” Herring said.
On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie criticized the New York Post for publishing what he called “misinformation” about the bail reform law’s impacts. “You guys put these stories out there, but then when the information is corrected, it may not end up on page one where the initial story started, it ends up on page 13 in some correction,” he told a Spectrum News reporter. “I’m just asking for fair reporting.”
Assemblymember Harvey Epstein agrees. “Bail reform is working,” he told the crowd at a press conference during the protest. “People are going home at night. People are keeping their jobs. Kids are not going into foster care.”
The crowd chanted, “When they say roll back we say fight back!” and “Leave the bail reform intact, we will not accept rollback!” They held signs calling for an end to mass jailing and declaring, “NO ROLL BACK.”
“We showed up, we came with all our passion, our rage, our discontent,” Ivelisse Gilestra told The Appeal. A long time ago, she was faced with trying to make a half-million-dollar bail. She couldn’t find that kind of money, she said, so she spent almost a year in jail. “It impacted my whole life.” She traveled from New York City to Albany for the protest because bail “is personal, it is political.”
For many, it’s also life and death. Assemblymember Latrice Walker, a sponsor of the bail reform law, spoke at the protest and shared the story of a cousin with a seizure disorder who had been in Rikers awaiting trial because he and his family couldn’t afford his bail. One day, they got a call saying he had passed away. “It was heartbreaking to his children, heartbreaking to his parents,” she recalled. “If she were able to afford the bail for him to come home, he would be alive today.” Shortly thereafter, her aunt, his mother, passed away from a heart attack.
“We’re standing on the shoulders of so many other people who paid the ultimate price just waiting” while incarcerated, she said.
Many speakers brought up Kalief Browder, a teenager who spent three years incarcerated, most of them in solitary confinement, over an arrest for allegedly stealing a backpack. His family couldn’t afford his $3,000 bail. Browder took his own life in 2015.
“We’ll never know the possibilities of what he could have been,” said Assemblymember Walter Mosely, another supporter of the bail reform law. Browder’s mother, Venida, died a little over a year later of a heart attack. Protesters held up pictures of Browder’s face, and his brother Akeem spoke to the crowd. “We cannot ignore the many, the countless, the thousands, the tens of thousands that we have helped out with this bill,” he said, that can “return home so they could be with their families. … We are all deserving of an innocent until proven guilty stance.”
Assemblymember Catalina Cruz held Rafael, Browder’s nephew, on her hip as she spoke to the crowd. Rafael, she said, never got to meet either Browder or his mother. Cruz argued that the law hasn’t had a chance to be proven effective or ineffective yet; it’s been in place for less than two months.
Herring, who said he suffered under the old bail regime, also wants the legislature to give the law some time before anyone rushes to make changes. “Don’t say something’s broken you never tried it,” he said.
“We did what we did … so that there will never be another Kalief Browder in New York State again,” Mosely said, adding, “We do a disservice to [the Browder family] each and every time we want to talk about rolling back” bail reform. “We’re not going back.”
Last week, advocates protested in legislators’ district offices on Long Island, and later this week they plan to head to district offices again. Next week, they’ll be back in Albany. “It’s really full on now,” Encalada-Malinowski said.