On July 2, decarceration advocates criticized the modified bail laws that were passed back in April by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature as part of the state budget. The changes were prompted by a backlash from law enforcement and prosecutors after the state eliminated cash bail for all nonviolent crimes last year.
The bail reform tweaks give judges more discretion on setting bail. It also makes more types of crimes eligible for bail, including second-degree burglary, sex trafficking and domestic violence felonies.
Activists said last week that the changes will result in tens of thousands of New Yorkers suffering the “horrors of pretrial detention.” Marvin Mayfield, a statewide organizer with the Campaign for Community Alternatives, said bail reform had cut the number of innocent people languishing in jails by nearly half.
“It’s shameful to reverse these gains, especially in the midst of a pandemic,” he said, “and during a national uprising in the defense of Black lives.”
Mayfield noted that judges can now set bail on a number of felonies, but activists wanted to “remove the element of bias” from the pretrial process.
Rodney Holcombe, a senior associate of criminal justice reform with FWD.us, noted that prisons across the state have already proven to be ill-equipped to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. He also called the backlash against bail reform “a campaign fueled by racism, fear and lies.”
“We’re calling on our elected leaders to act swiftly,” he said.
Roger Clark, a member of VOCAL-NY and the HALT Solitary Campaign, added that the bail reform rollbacks will cost lives.
“A lot more people will be vulnerable to catching COVID-19,” he said. “There’s a possibility some of them will lose their lives while they’re sitting in jail. It’s unconscionable.”
In addition to halting the rollbacks, advocates are pushing a slate of five bills that they say will address “state-sanctioned violence.”
The first bill would allow the State Board of Parole to provide an evaluation for potential parole release to incarcerated people aged 55 or older who have already served 15 years or more behind bars.
Another piece of legislation, the Fair and Timely Parole Bill, would provide a more meaningful parole review for those who are already eligible for parole.
Other bills in the slate include the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which would replace solitary confinement with a more humane alternative, the Repeal Walking While Trans law, which would end the criminalization of loitering for the purpose of prostitution, and the Protect
Our Act, which makes it illegal for a law enforcement officer to arrest a person while that person is going to, attending or leaving court.
The last three bills have more than enough co-sponsors to pass, advocates said.
Brooklyn Assemblywoman Latrice Walker called on her colleagues to not only pass the bills, but also revisit the modifications to bail reform.
“These unfair rollbacks were allowed to move forward,” she said, “even when we all knew in our heart of hearts that it was wrong.”
“This crisis underlines the obligation that we have to seek these changes,” added Bronx State Senator Gustavo Rivera. “All of these things need to pass this year so we can change the system in the right way.”
Dr. Robert Fullilove, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, viewed the issue through a public health lens. He said officials should “never leave a pool of infection untreated,” especially when there are also corrections officers in the facilities who go home to their families.
“Concentrating on this pool is the easiest way to spread this virus,” he said. “Having people exposed to something so easily transmitted is about as stupid a decision as any public official can make.”
Fullilove noted that the pandemic is particularly affecting Black and brown communities.
“Lives are at stake,” he added. “Increasing the likelihood that this virus kills us all, that’s what I worry about.”