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Our view: New York's bail reform should be considered a work in progress

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The visitation room at the Cayuga County Jail.

With another state budget season come and gone, we want to remind our representatives in Albany that bail reform is in need of another tweak, because it still isn't working as well as it should.

Among the criminal justice reforms that went into effect in 2020, the elimination of cash bail for people charged with many crimes was an overall positive step for New York because it helped alleviate inequities build into the system that saw poor people jailed for minor offenses while people with means were allowed to go home until their day in court.

Opposition to some of the details, however, was widespread because the initial list of "non violent" offenses was quite short. The Legislature made a few changes a year later, adding promoting a sexual performance by a child, strangulation of a family member, aggravated vehicular assault, and assault and arson when charged as hate crimes to the offenses eligible for bail in order for a defendant to get pretrial release.

But because crimes and criminals don't fall into neat categories, judges still need to be given more discretion to make local decisions regarding bail on a case-by-case basis. Such changes wouldn't undermine the overall intent of the laws, which was to reduce the inequity that bail for non-violent offenses was significantly more punitive to poor people.

Holding people charged with arguably minor offenses is almost always unnecessary, but letting nearly everybody walk away with an appearance ticket is not the answer either, because some criminals use the opportunity to go right back to breaking the law. The state should continue striving for the best compromise that balances the rights of the accused with the interests of the public.

Bail reform should not be completely repealed, as many politicians have argued for, because it has made New York's criminal justice system more fair, but there is no reason this can't be continually updated as more evidence comes in from police and prosecutors about some of the drawbacks — especially when it becomes an issue of public safety.

The Citizen editorial board includes publisher Michelle Bowers, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.


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