How New York’s Bail Reforms Are Playing Out in a Queens Court
Despite dire-sounding headlines, the state’s cash bail reforms are having a positive impact on the people they are meant to help.
On a weekday in mid-January, a handful of people appeared in a fluorescent-lit, low-ceilinged basement room at Queens Criminal Court for their first arraignment hearing after being arrested. They were there to find out if a judge would let them go home or keep them in jail while they awaited a trial to determine their guilt or innocence.
That day, not one of the five people who appeared before Judge Jerry Iannece had to post bail. A tall woman with long, black hair faced assault and larceny charges related to a family dispute. She said she had lost her seven-year job as an executive assistant months ago, but she didn’t have to worry about finding money to go free. She was granted supervised release with an order of protection against her—allowed to go home with certain restrictions, such as having to return to court and check in with a court officer.
The proceedings looked very different than they did just a month before. As of Jan. 1, New York State judges can no longer set bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, including all drug charges. In most cases, they must release people on their own recognizance, with a written promise that they will return to court at a later date. Judges can still impose conditions on release, such as travel or weapons restrictions.
The Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform, estimates that the changes will reduce the number of people sitting in New York jails waiting for their trials by at least 40 percent.
One woman who appeared before Iannece demonstrated the change that the recent reform has brought. That woman, frail and middle-aged with sunken eyes, had been in the same room in November, according to Mamadou Haidara, a bail assessment specialist at Vera. She was facing larceny and burglary charges for stealing packages from people’s porches. Her mother informed her lawyer that she was dealing with substance use issues. After the prosecutor requested bail be set at $10,000, the judge set it at $5,000, according to Haidara. Her elderly mother had sat in the pew-like benches at the back of the room crying.
Things had changed by mid-January. The woman faced credit card theft charges, and this time, the judge granted her supervised release. She walked to the back of the room to meet with court employees with a grateful look on her face. She would go home to her mother that day.
Before the bail reform law, public defenders would often request supervised release for their clients, said Anton Robinson, a senior planner with Vera’s Greater Justice New York initiative. But toward the end of the morning’s proceedings, a queue of a half dozen defendants formed as they waited to meet with a supervised-release officer.
“It’s kind of shocking to see all of these cases get supervised release,” Haidara said. “They would have never gotten supervised release in the past.”
Bail is meant to ensure that someone returns to court for a hearing. In practice, however, those with means can pay it and go home, while those without money end up in jail. Almost 70 percent of New York’s previous daily jail population of around 24,000 people were being held pretrial.
Queens judges set bail in over a quarter of cases before the bail reform law took effect; just 2 percent of defendants were granted supervised release. Judges set bail amounts at $10,000 or above more frequently than those in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. The Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys had already begun declining to request bail for low-level offenses before bail reform passed. Although newly elected Queens DA Melinda Katz had promised to do the same on the campaign trail, advocates said she reneged on that pledge. In November, judges in New York City were allowed to implement the bail reform changes early on a case-by-case basis. Many in Queens opted not to.
In January, Judge Iannece lost his temper when he was unable to put defendants behind bars. He yelled at one baby-faced 28-year-old with other pending charges, “If I see you again, I don’t care what anybody says. We’ll keep you.” He told another man facing a burglary charge, “I would love to see how much bail I could set on you.” The state’s new law bound him from meting out that extra punishment.
Being in jail “impacts everything,” Robinson noted. “Can I go back to work, can I pick up the kids from school?” If people are away from their lives for days, weeks, or months at a time, said Robinson, they’re at risk of losing their jobs or homes. Nearly a quarter of cases where someone is jailed pretrial results in the loss of their apartment or rented home, according to a 2001 paper. Pretrial detention reduces people’s employment and earnings.
James Lesane experienced those effects firsthand. He was arrested in late November when his wife called the police during a fight, he said. When he went through central booking in Brooklyn, he was asked how much money he made, one of the many questions arrestees are asked and information that is supposed to inform bail amounts. He told the police officers that he lives off the money he makes doing odd jobs as a handyman. But when he appeared in front of a judge, his bail was still set at $10,000. “I didn’t have it,” he said. “That kind of money is incomprehensible.”
“My heart dropped because I knew I had to go to jail,” he recalled. He was in jail for nearly a month, waiting for court dates until his bail amount was lowered further and further, until he hit the threshold that allowed him to be bailed out by the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. While he waited, he witnessed violence, gangs, and drugs. “I felt scared,” he said. He struggled to get the medication he needs for a chronic health condition, and said he went 10 days without it. “It impacted my health, it impacted my mental health,” he said. It was “day-to-day survival,” he added. “It was horrible.”
The experience followed him home once he was finally released. “It destroys your credibility,” he said. And as a handyman, his business runs on credibility and word of mouth. “It was very hard to re-establish” his work, he said. “It’s almost like starting off new.” He had to change his phone number and order new business cards. His wife lost their apartment while he was in jail, which meant he also lost his tools that were stored there. He was also in the middle of a job when he was arrested, a job he had to forfeit and pay back the money.
“I’m still not back 100 percent,” he said in January. “It’s terrible.”
Research has found that the longer people are held in jail, the more likely they are to commit a crime after they are released. One study found that low-risk defendants who are held in jail for two or three days are almost 40 percent more likely to commit new crimes than those held for 24 hours. The longer the jail stay, the worse it gets: People held for a month or more were 74 percent more likely to commit a crime.
In other places that have abolished the use of money bail or reformed the bail system, crime has actually fallen. After New Jersey reformed its system, violent crime fell by more than 30 percent. The same happened in Chicago, where violent crime dropped 8 percent after Cook County mandated that bail amounts be more affordable. In Brooklyn, after prosecutors stopped requesting bail for most misdemeanors, crime continued to fall.
Media coverage of New York’s reforms, however, has stoked fears that getting rid of bail will risk public safety. The New York Post has run a series of articles focusing on select cases involving people who were released without bail. A homeless man who was accused of assaulting two women was released and rearrested for panhandling, for example. Critics have also lambasted the bail law in the wake of several antisemitic attacks in the area, even though most happened before bail reform went into effect.
In the wake of such blowback, Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and some members of the state legislature have indicated that they support changing the state’s landmark bail reform law.
But those select cases are not representative of most of the people moving through AR-1 in the bottom of the Queens courthouse, nor of those who typically appear in courtrooms for their arraignment hearings. According to the Vera Institute, 90 percent of all arrests across the state are for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.
These are the people who are actually being impacted by bail reform—people like James Lesane or the woman who could return home to her mother.