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New York Law Eliminating Cash Bail Draws Backlash From Prosecutors And Police


In New York, backlash is building against a new state law that severely limits what is known as cash bail. The law is meant to fix a basic injustice - the fact that poor people accused of crimes often have to wait in jail for their cases to be heard because they can't afford bail. The law took effect on the first of this year, but as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, some people already want to change it.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: In a way, this was a backlash foretold. Even before the law ever took effect, there had been calls to change it.


DERMOT SHEA: The reform is good, and it can be much better with small tweaks to it.

KASTE: That's New York Police Commissioner Dermot Shea in December. He seemed to accept the law's general goal - fewer nonviolent defendants stuck in jail waiting for trial. But he predicted that there would be some cases where setting bail might still look like the better option.


SHEA: Think of a robbery. We're going to have situations where individuals - and we have the data to back it up - go out and do repeated robberies - caught, released, caught, released.

KASTE: Sure enough, soon after the new year, the New York media were finding those examples.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The latest case - a serial bank robber who was released and police say wasted no time before robbing again.

KASTE: That robber was unarmed. So this was a nonviolent crime, which meant release without bail.

Upstate in Ulster County, District Attorney Dave Clegg generally supports the new law. But he says he's also seen at least one case where the elimination of bail has meant the release of somebody he didn't think should be out.

DAVE CLEGG: Someone charged with committing a burglary - second, someone who had made threats against the occupants of the premises. And it appears that he has not complied with the instructions from probation. But we're not sure if this person is runaway or what.

KASTE: Clegg and other prosecutors would like to see the legislature amend the bail law to allow judges to keep some defendants in jail when they appear to pose a threat. It's a concept that's also supported by activists for victims of domestic abuse. But bail reform groups do not want to see the law changed.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) We will not accept rollbacks.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Leave our bail reform intact.

KASTE: They rallied at the Capitol in Albany. DeAnna Hoskins, head of JustLeadershipUSA, portrayed the law as a major civil rights achievement, one which should be left intact.


DEANNA HOSKINS: It took decades for policymakers to build mass punishment system that have killed our communities. And now, just after a couple of weeks of the thought of us being free, we got people who said, that's a little bit too much.

KASTE: What complicates this debate is the shifting understanding of what bail is even for. It started out as collateral - money you leave with the court to ensure that you'll show up for trial. But as research has shown that most defendants show up anyway, the conversation has shifted. Now it's about whether bail is really for keeping dangerous defendants off the streets.

Laura Appleman is a law professor at Willamette University who's followed this issue for years. She was amazed by how much New York restricted bail, but she says risk assessment was bound to come up.

LAURA APPLEMAN: That's sort of the full (unintelligible) which we, I think, currently are dividing how we deal with reforming criminal justice - that we can do it for people we don't find, quote, unquote, "dangerous."

KASTE: This question also tripped up the anti-bail movement in California in 2018, where activists turned against a similar law because it replaced bail with a system of judicial risk assessment.

In New York, public defender Marie Unjai (ph) says that's her position, too. She's opposed on principle to any new system for keeping people behind bars while they're still waiting for their day in court.

MARIE UNJAI: I think there's no right way to do it. I think there are a bunch of wrong ways to do it, but I do not think that there is a right way to detain people, pretrial, because you just don't know. We don't have a crystal ball.

KASTE: She says just a few weeks in, it's way too early for anyone to claim that eliminating bail has led to more crime in New York. But she calls the current backlash, quote, "unsurprising."

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.