New York State is embarking on a dangerous new experiment in court reform that, by law, will deny judges the ability to set bail for a variety of offenses that fall under the general heading of “non-violent.” That means potentially violent accused offenders could be allowed to walk from detention because judges are now restricted from using their own discretion to determine whether a suspect poses a public safety threat.
Many advocates of bail reform in St. Louis will no doubt hail New York’s bold move. That doesn’t mean local or state lawmakers should consider similarly radical reforms before weighing the consequences. Other state and local governments have smartly opted for more sensible reforms.
New York’s new law, which effectively bans the imposition of bail for defendants accused of non-violent misdemeanors, only became effective on Jan. 1. But it already has prompted an outcry from prosecutors, judges and law enforcers. Judges no longer have the power to intervene if there are warning signs in a defendant’s background. Under the new law, people arrested for misdemeanors such as stalking, burglary, arson or assault without serious injury must be released without posting bail.
Stalking victims can attest that a single incident of non-violent stalking never tells the whole story of the terror that such a person can inflict. An arrest can send a stalker into such a rage that, upon release, he might immediately seek out his target to exact revenge.
Last April, hours after The Bail Project, an anti-bail group, intervened to win Samuel Lee Scott’s release from detention in St. Louis, prosecutors said he targeted his domestic assault victim — his wife — and attacked her, inflicting fatal wounds. Scott was exactly the kind of dangerous person who needed to remain behind bars until trial. His inability to post bail was what kept him under detention. The Bail Project, whose website heralds New York’s reforms, handed Scott the freedom to carry out his deadly revenge attack.
Under New York’s law, someone like Scott might qualify for immediate release pending trial if his previous assault — hitting his wife in the face days earlier — did not result in serious injury.
Well-meaning St. Louis reformists see the entire bail system as unfair and in need of scrapping, along with closing the city jail known as the Workhouse. They correctly identify inherent inequities in the bail system — that someone with money can purchase freedom even if the alleged offense is egregious, while a poor person detained for a minor offense remains in jail for lack of money to make bail.
States like New Jersey, California and Illinois have reformed their bail systems while still allowing judges the discretion to weigh extenuating circumstances that warrant detention. We’re all for eliminating unfairness. Just don’t eliminate common sense in the process.