The three Democratic candidates in New York's 24th Congressional District weighed in on the state's bail reform law after being targeted in a digital ad by Republican U.S. Rep. John Katko's campaign last week.
The 2019-20 state budget included a few major criminal justice reforms, including ending cash bail for most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses. The changes were supported by Democratic lawmakers who sought to address flaws with bail, specifically people accused of low-level offenses who sat in jail for extended periods because they couldn't afford bail.
Katko's ad highlights stories about individuals accused of serious crimes being released under the bail reform law. A Syracuse Post-Standard story detailing the inmate population decline at the Onondaga County Jail is also cited in the 30-second digital spot.
Katko, R-Camillus, told The Citizen's editorial board last week that he felt the ad was relevant because it's "a harbinger of what's to come federally if we don't watch it." He worries that liberal Democrats will push for ending cash bail, especially if a Democrat is elected president.
There are bills that have been introduced in Congress that would pressure states to end cash bail. One bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, would achieve that goal by ending states' eligibility for certain federal grants if they have a money bail system in place.
Katko agrees that bail disproportionately affected people who couldn't afford it, but he believes New York lawmakers went too far with the reform measure.
"They totally overreached," he said.
Dana Balter, who challenged Katko in 2018 and is seeking the Democratic nomination again this year, expressed her support for the state's bail reform law. She noted that before the reforms took effect Jan. 1, people who had the money to afford bail were being let out of jail. If they lacked the funds to afford bail, she continued, they weren't released.
"It wasn't about a difference in the crime," she said. "It was about a difference in their economic status. That's not right. I did not hear Congressman Katko complaining about all the wealthy people who were being let out of jail then."
Balter, D-Syracuse, believes that the debate over the bail reform provisions has led to a discussion about the function of bail. The reason for bail, she explained, isn't to keep dangerous criminals off the street. Bail was to ensure "somebody would show up for trial."
She added that bail was being abused and individuals accused of crimes, especially low-level offenses, were effectively being punished before facing trial.
"I think it is a shame to promote fear, especially as a distraction from talking about a very important substantive issue which is ensuring that people aren't sitting in jail just because they're poor, which was the end result of the bail system that we had before," Balter said.
Roger Misso, who is also running for the Democratic nomination, blasted Katko's stance on bail reform. Katko has written letters to Gov. Andrew Cuomo calling for changes to the law. In his campaign ad, it says he supports repealing the bail reform law.
Repealing the new law, Misso said, is a "weak response to the challenge of establishing justice in our country."
"In this country, you are innocent until proven guilty," he said. "That's the foundation of our American justice system that's been too long denied to people of color and poor people in our communities. Using bail as punishment or a way to hold poor people or people of color in detention before trial is a violation of a fair, blind system of justice."
Misso added that Katko wants a "corrupt system that allows wealthy people out on bail and traps the rest of us."
Francis Conole's campaign referred The Citizen to the Democratic candidate's statement last week in response to the National Republican Congressional Committee's bail reform-themed press release. The title of the release posted on the GOP group's website described the Democratic candidates as "cowardly." Conole and Misso are U.S. Navy veterans.
In his statement, Conole said that "keeping people safe is something my grandfather, (Onondaga County) Sheriff Patrick Corbett, understood 30 years ago when he served and it's the main reason I served for the past two decades."
The bail reform ads, which appeared on social media and websites, are part of a series paid for by Katko's campaign. In January, the campaign released digital ads asking the Democratic candidates who they're supporting for president.
The Democratic candidates each said they will support their party's nominee for president.
Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.
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