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New York Bail Reform Laws Reduced Recidivism, Contrary to Critics’ Claims

by Chuck Sharman

A study released on March 14, 2023, revealed that New York’s controversial new bail laws have not led to more rearrests of offenders, as some politicians claimed. In fact, according to the study’s authors at the John Jay College Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ), the opposite is true.

The study focused on the effect in New York City of 2020 bail reform laws, which eliminated a judge’s discretion to impose bail for low-level crimes. What researchers found was that these reforms reduced the likelihood of rearrest, with one exception: The re-arrest rate for those released following a recent violent felony arrest showed a slight increase.

According to DCJ Director Michael Rempel, “Fundamentally, we found that eliminating bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies reduced recidivism in New York City.”

The study did not attempt to explain reasons for decreased recidivism among those released without bail. But experts suggest that even temporary incarceration can lead to job loss, family disruption, and housing instability, any of which may lead to further criminal activity.

The 2020 reforms allow New Yorkers charged with most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies to be released while their cases are being processed. For those in New York City, where the researchers drew their data, this eliminated the harsh choice of coughing up bail money or facing the dangers of the city’s Rikers Island jails. Instead, judges were required to release individuals under alternative conditions such as supervised release, involving monitoring and support from nonprofit agencies in the community.

The reforms were designed to prevent jailing people for being too poor to afford bail. However, since the laws were implemented, opponents of bail reform, including city Mayor Eric Adams (D), as well as conservative media outlets like The New York Post – owned by Fox News scion Rupert Murdoch – have loudly argued that the reforms went too far, releasing violent criminals onto city streets.

The study found this was a lie. Instead, the two-year re-arrest rate for individuals released due to bail reform was 44% – six points lower than the 50% re-arrest rate for those held in jail before the reforms were enacted, given similar charges, similar criminal histories and similar demographics. Furthermore, those released due to bail reform took longer to be rearrested compared to those who spent time in jail after being charged.

The impact of the bail reform measures, passed in 2019 and 2020, has been a contentious topic in New York politics. The issue was a focal point of 2022 elections, with both Republicans and conservative Democrats claiming that the reforms led to increased crime, particularly shootings and burglaries, as individuals were released without bail and went on to commit further offenses. However, data to support or refute these claims has been limited until now.

The DCJ report analyzed accused offenders over a longer period, including the time after their cases were resolved, and compared the rearrest rates of those released pretrial due to bail reform with other individuals who were held in jail and shared similar statistical characteristics.

“Our goal with this study was to substantially upgrade the credibility of information known to New Yorkers about bail reform and recidivism,” Rempel explained.

State lawmakers modified the laws in 2022, but those modifications were not included in the study. Almost all violent felony charges remain ineligible for mandatory release, as do sex offenses and certain domestic violence charges. Judges may also jail repeat offenders and anyone who poses a flight risk. See: Does New York’s Bail Reform Law Impact Recidivism? A Quasi-Experimental Test in New York City, Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College (2023).

In the 2022 elections, concerns about crime and bail reform were widely blamed for stoking reactionary anger that helped the state GOP. The party picked up six seats in the state house and one in the senate. Though not enough to break Democrats’ super-majority, the shift reflected a more drastic outcome in races for the U.S. House of Representatives, where New York Democrats lost four seats – the same number as the Republican margin of victory in the entire 435-seat chamber.

On April 28, 2023, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) led a successful charge in the state legislature against progressive members of her own party to reach conceptual agreement on a $229 billion state budget that rolls back bail reforms even further. Gone is a requirement that judges impose the “least restrictive condition” on those charged with crimes that are still bail-eligible, like violent felonies. The change grants judges more discretion to set higher bail, likely meaning more pretrial detention for those unable to afford it.

Additional source: Gothamist