New York’s Historic Opportunity for Bail Reform and Public Safety

Statement from the Vera Institute of Justice's Nicholas Turner and Insha Rahman

NEW YORK, NY — Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo penned an editorial in the Daily News in which he stated that he would not agree to the state budget—billions of dollars in funding statewide to be approved by April 1st—without passing criminal justice reform. To leave out bail, speedy trial, and discovery reform from the budget, he said, would be “criminal.”

Over the next few weeks, the Governor and the Legislature are debating the most important criminal justice reforms that New York has considered in decades. These pretrial reforms are an opportunity to eliminate cash bail and to dramatically reduce the number of people in jail.

Yet there is one critical point of debate, and that is the role of public safety.

We believe that public safety must be a consideration in the decision to impose pretrial detention. However, it must be considered in a narrow, tailored way—a way that defies historical conventions of fear-mongering and dog-whistle posturing typically associated with this term. Such a path lies before us and it is the one we must choose if we are to hold up New York as a paradigm of criminal justice reform.

Several bail reform proposals are being debated that all would go far in ending mass incarceration in New York. Each would eliminate cash bail and mandate release for many misdemeanor, nonviolent, and even some violent felony charges. They would invest in services for people released pretrial to provide basic reminders of court dates, case management, and monitoring. In cases at risk of detention, they would guarantee due process and a hearing in front of a judge before a person lost their pretrial liberty.

There is one notable way in which the proposals are different—and that is the question of public safety. Some proposals do not include public safety at all. Governor Cuomo’s proposal allows for public safety, but in a narrow, careful, tailored way. Currently, the District Attorneys Association of New York, and even lead prosecutors who hold themselves out as “progressive” and reform-minded, are pushing for a definition of public safety to be included that is far too broad and risks perpetuating the racism and bias that has permeated our criminal justice system for too long.

New Yorkers should support public safety—it is the right thing to do—but we must learn from the mistakes of other every other state and chart our own path. That path requires us to only impose detention in the rare instances when there is a “current threat of physical injury to a reasonably identifiable person or persons.” And only when the person is charged with a serious or violent offense. Detention should require evidence and due process protections that could only be guaranteed with an individualized hearing where a prosecutor would have to show—by clear and convincing evidence—that a purported risk of physical injury to someone exists and that no conditions in the community would mitigate that danger. In doing so, the prosecutor should be required to turn over discovery and prove that risk with specificity and detail—a determination that would not be satisfied by the use of a generic risk assessment instrument or some other unknowable algorithm, as is the case in many other jurisdictions.

New Yorkers should support public safety—it is the right thing to do—but we must learn from the mistakes of other every other state and chart our own path.

Why is all of this critical? Because the decision to deprive someone—presumed innocent—of their liberty demands a heavy burden of proof.

This is in contrast to the prevailing definition of public safety, adopted by most states (and currently being advanced by many New York district attorneys), which is unduly sweeping and allows for the very worst of unsubstantiated and unsupported characterizations of dangerousness. In other places, it is not unusual to see anything from sleeping in the streets to drug possession characterized as a risk to public safety. Even states that flaunt their progressive criminal justice bona fides, like California, remain stuck in an outdated and pernicious definition of who and what constitutes a danger. California’s new bail legislation signed into law last year, Senate Bill 10, may have eliminated money bail but it gave judges unfettered discretion to detain people—at the risk of actually increasing incarceration and reinforcing racialized tropes—under a sweeping and broad standard of risk to public safety.

Historically, that is territory we as New Yorkers know well and must avoid. The question about public safety—and whose safety is being protected by a threat from whom—has been profoundly and demonstrably shaped by racism, explicit, implicit and everything in between. Look at the caricatured black antagonist in the 1915 film, “Birth of a Nation,” celebrated by President Woodrow Wilson. In that film, a black man was so threatening to a white woman that she threw herself to her death off a cliff to avoid him. Recollect the scare tactics routinely deployed in support of tough-on-crime policies—from the rhetoric of Nixon and Reagan’s War on Drugs, to G.H.W. Bush’s use of the Willie Horton story to defeat Michael Dukakis as “soft” on crime, to Hillary Clinton’s infamous “super predator” comment. And think of the commonplace rush to judgment of law enforcement and the general public to blame black men and women for crimes, as in the case of the exonerated Central Park Five. The research tells us that even the most progressive of Americans harbor implicit bias that conflates black and brown skin with criminality.

This debate is powerful in New York, where we live, because for five decades, New York has refused to cave to such overly broad definitions of public safety. It is currently the only state that explicitly does not allow judges to consider risk to public safety as a justification for detention. Yet, it is not that public safety should not be considered at all—it should—but it should be considered carefully and narrowly and in a way that does not conflate danger with black and brown New Yorkers.

We urge New York legislators to make the right decision that will make us a paradigm of equity and fairness in our justice system—and we urge others around the country to pay attention and follow in our footsteps.

The time is now for New York to reform its system of pretrial justice once and for all. Doing so will end mass incarceration in New York’s jails, especially in counties around the state where upwards of half or even three-quarters of the jail population are people held on misdemeanor and low-level charges. A careful, narrow basis for detention to address the physical safety and concerns of victims and survivors of crime and domestic violence is the moral and right thing to do that carefully threads the needle between ending mass incarceration and taking safety seriously. We urge New York legislators to make the right decision that will make us a paradigm of equity and fairness in our justice system—and we urge others around the country to pay attention and follow in our footsteps.

Nicholas Turner is the president of the Vera Institute of Justice and Insha Rahman is the director of Vera’s Greater Justice New York initiative.

Related Content