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New York is debating bringing back cash bail

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In 2019, New York became the latest state to diminish the use of cash bail in the court system. But now policymakers are under pressure to roll back those reforms as New York City deals with a spike in crime, even though there's no data supporting a clear link between the two. John Campbell of member station WNYC has been covering the debate at the state Capitol in Albany, and he joins us now. Welcome, John.

JOHN CAMPBELL: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: How does New York's cash bail system work, and why did lawmakers see fit to reform it three years ago?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, so back in 2019, there was a major push among progressive activists and lawmakers to really reshape the criminal justice system. And one of the ways they wanted to do it was by eliminating the use of cash bail. Now, cash bail applies when someone is charged with a crime, but they haven't been tried or convicted yet. So we don't know if they're guilty or not guilty. And the idea behind imposing cash bail is that the money is an incentive to make sure you return to court for your court dates. Once you do and your case is finished, you get that money back. But Democratic lawmakers say that is basically criminalizing poverty. You could have two people charged with the same crime, but if one of them doesn't have any money, they could languish in jail while the other is set free. And the opponents of cash bail - they often point to the case of Kalief Browder, who spent three years in a New York City jail for a petty theft charge that was ultimately dropped. He actually went on to kill himself at the age of 22. By that point, New Jersey and California and Washington, D.C. - they had all passed major bail reforms. And New York lawmakers and then-Governor Andrew Cuomo followed suit in 2019. They didn't eliminate cash bail entirely, but they did eliminate it for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

RASCOE: What has been the impact from those reforms?

CAMPBELL: The immediate impact was the state's jail population decline. Now, that number had already been on the decline for years. But the Vera Institute of Justice - they track these numbers and they noted there was a 30% drop from the start of 2019 to the start of 2020. Now, when someone commits a lower-level misdemeanor or a nonviolent felony, they aren't remanded to jail. They're generally released on a ticket or on their own recognizance. And even in more serious cases, judges are still required to implement the least restrictive measures that ensure that a defendant will be back in court, though judges are required to take a lot of factors into account when they're determining that standard.

RASCOE: So you're saying jail populations continue to go down. You had judges considering less punitive ways to get people back in court, but there's now this backlash against these reforms. Why is that happening now?

CAMPBELL: I mean, really, the biggest reason is because there's been a spike in major crime in recent months in New York City and in some other cities in the state. And I want to be clear the data is still preliminary, but there really hasn't been much of a link between the spike in crime and bail reform, at least as far as the data shows. And progressive activists are also quick to point out that the crime spike is happening in cities across the country, and it may be exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. But Governor Kathy Hochul is up for election this year, and some of her opponents have really latched on to the issue of crime. They're airing ads already. Lee Zeldin - he's a Republican congressman from Long Island - he's running against Governor Hochul. He even picked a 20-year veteran of the NYPD to be his running mate. Her name is Alison Esposito, and she says she wants to see judges have much more say in whether someone should face cash bail.

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ALISON ESPOSITO: They are there for a reason. They are supposed to evaluate all factors in every crime and make an educated decision.

CAMPBELL: So Governor Hochul was facing a lot of questions about what she would do. And she ultimately came out with this 10-point public safety plan that does include changes to the bail system for the most serious of crimes. Judges would be given more leeway to consider a defendant's criminal history and whether they have a history with guns. And she wants to make repeat offenders eligible for bail if they are charged with a second crime while their first case is still open.

RASCOE: What's been the reaction to that plan? Are lawmakers open to making these changes?

CAMPBELL: I mean, really, it's been a quite mixed reaction. Hochul is trying to tuck these proposals into the state budget, which is late right now. And there's been quite a bit of resistance from progressive activists, in particular. They've been rallying pretty much nonstop at the Capitol. Here's Jared Trujillo. He's the policy counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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JARED TRUJILLO: We're talking about people not being thrown into cages and being kept away from their families, from their loved ones, from their jobs, from their treatment programs.

CAMPBELL: So Governor Hochul continues to negotiate in private with the legislature, and they seem to be working toward some sort of compromise.

RASCOE: That's John Campbell from member station WNYC. Thank you for joining us.

CAMPBELL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Campbell