By Rebecca Town
This year, New York joined a growing number of cities and states moving to reduce pretrial detention by decreasing cash bail usage. Some law enforcement agencies have called on the Legislature to roll back these reforms in the name of public safety. While genuine threats to public safety should never be taken lightly, the data simply does not support these fears.
Jailing most people before trial does not make us any safer. Conversely, not jailing most people awaiting trial does not put us in any more danger.
In New Jersey, where cash bail was all but eliminated in 2017, similar concerns about a possible spike in crime and failures to appear never materialized. In fact, violent crimes have since dropped by a massive 30% in the state.
Similarly, in February 2018, the district attorney for Philadelphia stopped asking for bail on misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. One year later a George Mason University study found no negative effects on recidivism, violent crimes or failures to appear in court.
The data tells us overuse of cash bail may actually make our communities less safe. Researchers have found that spending even a few days in jail before trial correlates with defendants committing more crimes later on. Being detained before trial for only a short time can set off a devastating downward spiral.
As a public defender, I have seen how destabilizing pretrial detention can be and witnessed the effects of the cycle of poverty on crime rates. People who are often already struggling may lose their jobs or homes, custody of their children, and even access to essential medications and treatments.
Frequently, people who cannot afford bail eventually plead guilty just to get out of jail, even when they are innocent. The guilty and innocent alike often spend months behind bars awaiting trial, and once released, a criminal conviction makes it significantly harder to get another job.
Many of my clients who cannot make bail are supporting households with low-wage jobs at the time of arrest, jobs that generally aren’t waiting for them if they don’t show up the next day. Vulnerable families who were barely making ends meet often see their lives unravel when a loved one is held on cash bail. The effects ripple out into the community.
Just because a criminal justice tool is humane does not mean it is ineffective. There is nothing that says making things slightly easier for folks who have yet to be convicted will increase criminal activity at all. In fact, the data we have tells us the opposite is true, that such activity decreases when people are home with their families.
Eliminating cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies has not caused the sky to fall in New Jersey nor Philadelphia, and it will not here in New York. After all, aren’t we as Americans innocent until proven guilty?
Rebecca Town is a staff attorney with the Criminal Defense Unit in the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo.