One Dangerous Bail Reform Law

May 28, 2019

The Legislature must fix mistakes that will make New York City neighborhoods more vulnerable to crime

Op-Ed by Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill in the Tuesday, May 28, 2019, edition of the New York Daily News.

As part of this year's budget bill, the Legislature has passed a measure that will greatly reduce the number of arrested persons for whom judges may require bail. Taking effect in January 2020, the new legislation, as currently enacted, will have a significant negative impact on public safety.

The New York City Police Department favors responsible bail reform. There is no reason to hold non-violent minor offenders who pose no danger to public safety on cash bail of any amount. But any reform package should allow judges to remand arrested persons who represent a danger to others, as measured by the gravity of the offense for which they have been arrested and also by the gravity of offenses they have committed in the past.

New York State is one of only three states that do not allow judges to weigh the dangerousness of a subject in determining whether to remand the subject or set bail. Under the new law, judges will be expressly forbidden from remanding or setting bail even for flight risks in the cases of lower level robberies and burglaries and virtually all drug trafficking cases, no matter how many prior offenses the accused robbers, burglars, and drug dealers may have.

Beginning next year, police will be forced to release habitual criminals to return to their chronic offenses, whether violent crimes, burglaries, drug trafficking, or grand larcenies. For instance, an offender held on bail for a serious narcotics charge in 2018—and who had four prior arrests for robbery in a single year—would not be subject to bail under the new law.

The more strident bail reform advocates bolster their case by claiming that arrests for minor crimes are swelling the jail population with people held on bail. The opposite is true. The NYPD has systematically reduced the number of misdemeanor arrests, which are down 38% in the past five years. About 89% of arrested people are already released at arraignment, or before, without bail or incarceration. New York City's jail population has been declining for years, down 35% since 2013 and 63% since 1993.

In addition to restricting judges on setting bail or remanding dangerous criminals, the new law requires that many arrested persons be released with desk appearance tickets or DATs, without being held even for arraignment. Typically, arrestees who are issued DATs are released from precinct station houses within a short time of their arrests. Approximately one quarter of people released with DATs never appear for their scheduled court dates, and DATs have a negligible deterrent effect on chronic offenders.

Barring some specific disqualifying factor, had the new law been in effect in 2018, about 16,000 arrestees with prior arrests involving force, weapons, or sex offenses would have been released with DATs. This includes approximately 1,000 people with records of five or more arrests for violent crime in the prior three years.

With New York City crime down steeply since 1993, some Albany legislators seem to have lost sight of what it takes to keep crime down. Our current low crime levels aren't a permanent achievement. They are a continuing challenge.

At the NYPD, we work at that challenge every day. We target crime-prone locations, control conditions on the street, and focus on the criminal actors who cause much of city's crime. Disrupting the activities of the criminal population and reducing their opportunities for further crime are among our principal goals and our daily responsibilities.

The new law on bail and desk appearance tickets will make the work of disrupting criminals and deterring crime much more difficult. If the worst short-term outcome for chronic offenders is a DAT—which they perceive to be the equivalent of a traffic ticket—the police's ability to deter crime will be greatly diminished. State legislators should reconsider and revise this ill-advised legislation before it begins to eat away at the foundations of the safe community that New York City has become.