In an equitable society, one thing rings true—poverty should never be criminalized! New York’s justice system, pre-2019, did one thing very well—it kept innocent people in jail simply for the lack of having money. This led to not only grotesque and immoral policy but trauma and death. Today, a fictitious debate rages, characterized by fear mongering, misinformation, and outright lies about bail reform. Pre-trial detention is a deadly system that traumatizes people before their day in court, separating them from community and family. We need a system that addresses the immediate and root causes of harm and invests in services to meet community needs, not a system that puts people in cages.
On an average day in 2018, 70% of New York’s jail population was in pretrial detention, meaning they were serving time in jail without even having been convicted of a crime. For many in pretrial detention, their only hope of release was to post bail. The average bail amount for a misdemeanor in New York City is $1,000. Unfortunately, this is often out of reach for low-income people, leaving access to freedom only to those that can pay for it, and guaranteeing jail time for those who couldn’t afford to buy their way home. Since the 2019 bail reform laws passed, many across the state have continued to use harmful rhetoric to instill fear in the hearts of New Yorkers by tying bail reform to the “increase in crime.” The truth is that crime overall has not increased. Since 2020, there has been a sharp increase in two specific types of crime: gun violence and homicides. This trend is nationwide, across cities governed by Democrats and Republicans, and across urban, suburban, and rural geographies; it has nothing to do with bail reform. The research backs up what we know to be true, that community-based, public health-centered violence intervention programs do a better job of preventing and decreasing gun crime than policing and prosecution do.
There are many reasons why there is more gun violence in our communities, but the 2019 bail reform laws are not one of them. We must understand that the sharp increase in poverty due to the ongoing pandemic, the lack of mental health resources in our community, and our failure to stop the flow of illegal guns into our state are all contributing to the increase in gun violence. This crisis is exacerbated by the ongoing disinvestment in Black and Brown neighborhoods and irresponsible political decisions. The solution to poverty is not to increase the budget of our police force or to rollback bail reform and keep criminalizing poverty. After all, the safest communities have the most resources, not the highest jail populations.
There is only one kind of reform that should be on the table and that is transformative equity-based investments in our community. Our energy should be directed towards expanding restorative justice programs and reducing recidivism rates to keep New Yorkers out of the vicious cycle of mass incarceration. We must continue our fight for parole reform by passing Fair and Timely Parole and Elder Parole, both of which would decrease the prison population and reunite incarcerated individuals with their loved ones.
State Senator Cordell Cleare represents District 30, including areas such as Central, East and West Harlem, Upper Westside, and Washington Heights neighborhoods. John Mcfarlane is a civil rights union leader and activist, Vocal-Ny and Citizen Action of New York