Series: From the President

New Yorkers Have Known Bail Doesn’t Work for 60 Years. Why Are We Still Debating It?

Nicholas Turner President & Director // Sam McCann Senior Writer
May 04, 2023
New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

This spring, New York Governor Kathy Hochul held the state’s budget hostage over bail reform.

More specifically, Hochul wanted to roll back the state’s successful bail reforms, which passed in 2019. Those laws have helped keep New York communities safe while reducing the number of people held waiting for their day in court in often-deadly jails. All told, the laws have saved New Yorkers $104 million in bail money, returned more than 24,000 people to their homes before their day in court, and prevented 1.9 million nights in jail.

But since their passage, the laws have been used by politicians and tabloids to exploit legitimate public safety concerns and make bail reform the culprit. Elected leaders have scored cheap political points and spread misinformation instead of doing the serious work of investing in ways to prevent crime before it happens. The laws have already been weakened twice since their passage, including last year in an effort led by Hochul herself. But despite these efforts, the fundamental changes bail reform ushered into our legal system in 2019 remain in place and continue to deliver justice for New Yorkers.

This year, Hochul aimed to chip away at the laws once more, targeting language around why someone can be held on bail, and she was willing to grind the state’s legislature to a halt to do so. The state’s budget was due on April 1, but the governor and state legislators blew through not only that deadline but the several extensions that followed. On April 3, State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told journalists that bail took up 90 percent of the time during budget negotiations. By mid-April, Hochul proposed yet more changes to laws around prosecution.

After weeks of debate, New York lawmakers landed in a predictable place, and one they have been in before. The changes, while somewhat harmful, will do little to undermine the core tenets of bail reform. They will also do absolutely nothing to respond to the real and legitimate concerns that New Yorkers have about crime. At the end of the day, if you blame the wrong cause, you miss the right solution. That’s how we’ve ended up with the annual spectacle of weaponizing bail reform for three legislative sessions while ignoring New Yorkers’ safety needs.

The process is almost as dispiriting as the result. Spending serious time grappling with ways to build public safety makes sense, but spending a majority of a budget season arguing about bail reforms does not. For decades, advocates and opponents have exhausted the same tired debates about bail—what it’s for, how it works best, and its connection to public safety. Years of careful research tell us that money bail actually hurts public safety, as people detained pretrial are more likely to be rearrested after their cases are resolved. That makes sense: tearing people from their communities and placing them in unsafe jail conditions puts them in desperate positions. Studies also underline the fact that efforts to reduce jail populations, like bail reform, do not cause a rise in violent crime. The extreme focus on rolling back bail reform detracts from prioritizing investments in evidence-backed solutions that actually build safety and justice in communities.

Bail comes up every election cycle, with cynical politicians and even more cynical media stoking fears that bail reform threatens to upend safety. Hochul herself is focused on this issue after spending the 2022 gubernatorial election cycle as the subject of baseless attacks from her opponent Lee Zeldin for being soft on crime. Although Hochul took Zeldin's bait and turned bail into a political football, other officials have taken a more sensible approach. After Illinois passed bail reform in 2021, opponents ran fearmongering ads during the 2022 election cycle. But rather than give in to the fear, supporters of reforms defended the laws—a post-election survey found that 60 percent of Illinoisians either supported or were neutral on bail reform.

The truth is, we’ve been disproving many of the concerns around bail reform for more than half a century and have built on that work for years. In fact, bail is the very reason Vera exists. Sixty-two years ago, Louis Schweitzer and Herb Sturz founded Vera and worked with New York City to study its bail system. The initiative, known as the Manhattan Bail Project, embedded Vera researchers in the city’s courts. The result was a comprehensive report of recommendations on how to use (or not use) bail in a way to build safety. People released based on Vera’s recommendations returned to court 98.4 percent of the time and were not rearrested more than 99 percent of the time. By 1966, Vera’s bail research served as the basis for the federal Bail Reform Act, and President Johnson credited the Institute’s work when signing the bill into law.

In the decades since, Vera and others have iterated on the Manhattan Bail Project and have come to the same conclusion: bail reform works. Holding people in jail before their trial simply because they cannot afford to buy their freedom risks destabilizing their entire lives, making it difficult, or impossible, to keep their jobs, their homes, or even their families. And, more specifically, studies examining bail reform in New York have concluded that the changes have not affected rearrest rates and that there is no meaningful difference between how many people were rearrested before and after bail reform, nor any connection between the reforms and crime rates. In many ways, the bail question is settled science. Bringing New York’s entire state government to a halt to litigate it once more is irresponsible at best—and costs the state an opportunity to find real, material ways our legislature can help.

Instead, research points to what our elected leaders should be prioritizing in their discussions around public safety. Addressing poverty and expanding social support systems, like healthcare, dramatically reduces crime. Medicaid expansion also drives arrests down, and treating substance use disorders and mental health needs has similar benefits. Community violence intervention programs have a robust track record of reducing gun violence in cities across the country. Community-based pretrial services also keep people stable before their trial and facilitate care when their cases close. And investing in supportive housing reduces jail admissions, homeless shelter stays, and emergency department visits at a fraction of the cost of incarceration.

These are the issues that should be occupying our elected officials’ negotiations, not the same tired debates pinning the public’s reasonable concerns about safety on bail reform. Every moment wasted on this useless dispute is a moment ignoring the real solutions New Yorkers need. More than six decades on, it is exasperating to be litigating the issue of bail reform again and again. New Yorkers know what keeps us safe, and if our elected leaders spend more time on scapegoats than solutions, voters will hold them accountable.