We Need to Protect New York Bail Reform to Protect New York Communities

Jullian Harris-Calvin Director, Greater Justice New York // Sam McCann Senior Writer
Nov 03, 2022

The first general election ad released by New York’s GOP gubernatorial candidate, Lee Zeldin, is a horrifying 30-second-long clip of shootings, assaults, and robberies, ending with an ominous phrase: “Vote like your life depends on it—it just might.” A cornerstone of Zeldin’s campaign platform is to repeal what he calls “cashless bail.”

The ad is part of a pattern of politicians purporting to address real public safety concerns by claiming that rolling back the state’s successful bail reform laws is the answer. In reality, building real public safety in New York demands more than scare tactics and a default to incarceration. It takes investment in preventing crime in the first place, not just reacting to it after it happens.

The good news: we already have solutions proven to work, so long as we say no to the fearmongering and scare tactics that some candidates and elected officials are peddling in this heightened political moment.

Protecting bail reform protects public safety

All New Yorkers, regardless of wealth, age, race, or ZIP code, deserve to be safe. But an often-overlooked fact is that mass incarceration is actually counterproductive to public safety. People detained pretrial, in particular, are more likely to be rearrested in the future compared to people who are released pretrial—a reflection of the impact of ripping people from their families, homes, and jobs and placing them in unsafe jail conditions.

Before bail reform, New Yorkers facing minor charges were forced to pay bail they couldn’t afford just to stay out of jail. Many couldn’t pay even a $500 bail or, if they could, it would be at the expense of paying rent, putting food on the table, or taking care of other necessities. Without reform, the crisis occurring in New York City’s jails—where 18 people have died so far this year—would be that much worse. Bail reform has kept people alive, families together, and hard-working New Yorkers employed.

So why are some elected officials and candidates blaming bail reform for negatively impacting public safety?

Scoring cheap political points by weaponizing crime makes New Yorkers less safe

The newest data released about the impact of bail reform finds that it is working to keep communities safe while reducing the number of people jailed who are awaiting trial. In New York City, pretrial rearrest rates remained stable after the passage of bail reform, fluctuating between one and three percentage points up and down, and trending downward in 2021. In plain speak, that means there is no meaningful difference in how many people were arrested before and after bail reform. A recent study looking at all available data on the impact of New York’s bail reform on public safety also found no clear connection between the change in the law and crime rates. Yet, some candidates and elected officials want to score cheap political points by falsely blaming rising crime on bail reform, instead of focusing on some of the real drivers of violence in neighborhoods—economic desperation, a lack of access to resources and treatment, and underinvestment in the programs and services that keep people healthy and safe.

Fearmongering over New York’s bail reform is nothing new. Weaponizing the issue of crime and preying on people’s fears is a tactic employed every election cycle. Certainly, crime and public safety are top voting priorities for many New Yorkers. We’ve seen in recent weeks the gubernatorial race between Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul and Republican challenger Lee Zeldin tighten as a result of this issue. However, the conventional thinking that voters who are concerned about crime and safety want more of the status quo policies that drive mass incarceration is simply wrong. In public opinion research commissioned by Vera Action, New Yorkers ranked community-based crime reduction strategies—such as improved mental health care and drug treatment, education, job training, and reentry services—above hiring more police officers when asked what would make communities safer. Even among New Yorkers who have genuine concerns about crime and safety, these solutions are popular.

We need solutions, not scare tactics, to protect New York communities

In the leadup to the midterms, New Yorkers deserve accountability and action from candidates and elected officials. We deserve solutions, not scare tactics.

Promising solutions to reducing gun violence and gun-related homicides exist. For example, Advance Peace, the community violence intervention program in Richmond, California, reduced shootings that resulted in injury by 85 percent. Here in New York, following implementation of the Save Our Streets program in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the neighborhood experienced 20 percent less gun violence than would have been expected, compared to adjacent police districts. A Chicago study also found a 31 percent drop in homicides and a 19 percent decline in shootings in two neighborhoods where violence interrupters worked.

Similarly, well-funded community-based pretrial services like the New York City model are another critical investment to support safety and success for people released pretrial. Pretrial services can provide supports and programming for people released pending trial, such as connecting them with a community-based drug treatment program to address the underlying drivers of their arrest.

Investment in supportive, affordable housing also bolsters public safety. The Center for Supportive Housing estimates that in one year, nearly 2,600 people held on Rikers Island need supportive housing. Supportive housing has been shown to significantly reduce jail admissions for program participants, and it does so at a fraction of the cost of incarceration. Placing someone in supportive housing costs approximately $42,000 per year—less than 10 percent of the cost of keeping them in jail (more than $550,000 in Fiscal Year 2021)—and has a significantly better impact on public safety.

We are less than a week away from the midterm elections. Even though the fearmongering and scare tactics are at a fever pitch, New Yorkers know what is really needed to prevent crime and deliver safety. Now is the time for solutions, not scare tactics, to protect bail reform and keep New York communities safe.