Editor's note: An earlier, incorrect version of this editorial appeared in 13 Herald print editions of the Jan. 2-8 issue. Below is the correct version. We regret the error.
New York state’s new, long-overdue bail reform law, which passed last April and took effect Jan. 1, is desperately needed. Changes to the law were last made in 1971.
Requiring anyone and everyone to make bail, regardless of the offense, led to large numbers of mostly poor African-American and Hispanic offenders being incarcerated for months while awaiting trial or a plea agreement.
The new law will allow most defendants who are charged with nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors to be released after their arraignment without having to make bail. Hardliners have argued against the new law, saying it will allow thousands of potential offenders onto our streets, where they could continue their criminal ways.
News flash: Any one of these offenders could have been on the streets in the past, if only they had had the cash to make bail, but they didn’t, so they stayed locked up. Meanwhile, if you were affluent enough to afford bail, you got out of jail, and were free to carry on with your life with your family — and potentially earn a living.
Because of economic inequities, the old bail system tended to favor white defendants over those of color. And a Harvard University study showed that punishment tended to be harsher for blacks and Latinos. Thus, racial bias was built into the system from the outset.
According to research by New Hour for Women and Children, of the 2,400 people in jail on Long Island before Jan. 1, roughly 70 percent were unable to make bail during the pre-trial period. On Jan. 1, 619 prisoners were eligible for release from the Nassau County jail, according to state records. Roughly one-third were expected to be released. And the county announced on Dec. 31 that it would let go 29.
The new law has obvious personal and financial benefits for low-level defendants. Rather than languishing in jail, they could be working, which many would do if not for their incarceration. Beyond that, however, there are financial benefits for us all.
The five most populous counties in New York state outside of New York City, including Nassau, spend an average of $114 million per year to incarcerate prisoners, or about $115,000 per inmate, according to the Civil Liberties Union. Releasing low-level defendants who couldn’t make bail on Jan. 1 could save the county hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars a year — money that it desperately needs to help fill its coffers, or that could be used to fund youth and drug-prevention services to stop crime before it starts.
Will there be problems with bail reform? Questionable cases, quirks in the system? No doubt. On balance, though, bail reform is good for us all.