The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.
We’re less than a month into New York State bail reforms and already a torrent of local media articles have been highlighting one-off cases of “criminals” “back on the streets” in an effort to frighten pro-reform lawmakers into joining Albany Republicans in undoing the changes.
The wave of sensationalist press is not just coming from New York City––as The Appeal documented this month––but also from upstate county sheriff and city police departments frustrated by what they say is “too broad” bail reform.
There is no direct evidence that these stories are part of a coordinated messaging campaign. But given the uniform opposition to bail reform among New York law enforcement associations and unions and the fact that the source of these stories is almost all law enforcement, the incentive to hype the threat posed by bail reform is apparent. A joint press release last March from the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, and the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police came out against substantive reforms around the time of the bill passing. The sheriffs’ association, a lobbying arm of the state’s 58 county sheriffs, has tweeted about bail reform more than 30 times since the beginning of reform on Jan. 1. It’s apparent that the primary source for these stories, law enforcement, has a political incentive to tee up tales of doom for local media.
Patch.com, WCBS 880, CBS 2 New York, and Fox News all sourced their bail scare stories to Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. Fox News even featured a sitdown interview with Toulon in which he specifically criticized Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and his bill to reform cash bail. CBS 6 and ABC 13, sourced their anti-bail reports to a Facebook post by East Greenbush Police Chief Elaine Rudzinski. WUTR ABC 7 Utica sourced its story to Oneida County Sheriff Rob Maciol, who has taken to Twitter to criticize bail reform 11 times. And WNBF Radio and the Daily Star sourced their articles about an alleged vehicle theft to Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond.
All these reports follow a familiar scare story formula––one catalogued by The Appeal repeatedly over the past six months.
- Handpicked, one-off cases where arrestees, assumed to be guilty, are “released” “back on the streets.”
- Lack of relevant context, little or no evidence showing the person being released has made anyone less safe.
- Completely ignore violence of county jail, as well subsequent criminality caused by pretrial detention, resulting from loss of employment and education by the arrestee.
- Rely entirely or almost entirely on police or pro-police sources
The Patch.com story is based on a media release from the office of Sheriff Toulon, and appears to make no effort to check the veracity of the claims. The article states: “In Suffolk County, 301 inmates were released by the courts under the new law in the month leading up to its enactment, a release from Toulon’s office said. The individuals are inmates who otherwise would have been held on bail or bond, depending on the severity of the crime and the defendant’s past criminal history, the release added.”
The body of the article shows large mug shots of four men, almost certainly released to the press by the sheriff’s office, and each of them appears to be either Black or Latinx.
The piece leans on salacious details provided by the sheriff’s office. It informs us that one person is accused of strangulation, another of “first degree rape and first degree course of sexual conduct with a child.” The message is clear: Bail reform lets rapists and child molesters out of jail.
Left unmentioned, per usual, is that before 2020 bail reform all these men could have been let out on bail if they were wealthy. The only difference post-reform is that the bail was reduced to reflect the defendant’s ability to pay. Again, bail is not a proxy for guilt or an indication of the horribleness of a given crime, it’s a proxy for poverty. Wealthy people—for example Harvey Weinstein in 2018—were routinely let out on bail for horrid alleged sex crimes pre-reform. At the time, not only did the NYPD chief not object to this, there’s evidence the department spent years covering for Weinstein.
Sheriff Toulon’s apparent media blitz resulted in multiple appearances, including one on WCBS 880, a news radio station. He makes the assertion that “in Suffolk County, we’ve released 301 inmates back into the community—41 of them were gang members.” It’s not clear how Toulon knows they’re “gang members” or what it means to “release people back into the community” who still face years and sometimes decades in jail in the event they are found guilty, but WCBS published the claim anyway.
This piece goes on to play off fentanyl panic, telling us that the problem with reform extends far beyond Suffolk County. “Toulon’s criticisms come after New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan also said the bail reform law could get in the way of the federal fentanyl law, which aims to clamp down on international drug traffickers,” the article states. It’s not clear how a state reform would affect federal drug laws, nor is there any evidence provided that shows a causal link, but a prosecutor said it and that’s good enough for local news.
“Delaware County Sheriff Blames Bail Reform for Car Theft from Jail Parking Lot” is another bizarre article. Published Jan. 16, the WNBF piece is entirely based on the unverified suspicion of Sheriff DuMond, who says bail reform was responsible for “the theft of a vehicle almost immediately after a suspect, arrested for the theft of another vehicle, was released from custody,” the piece paraphrases. The article shows a mugshot of a young Latinx man who has not been convicted of the crime of which he is accused and then states that he is “affiliated with the notorious MS-13 street gang.” The author gives no evidence for that assertion, and does not share where it came from, but given that all of the other allegations in the piece derive from the sheriff, it’s likely this one did too.
The article goes on to note that the young man “reports being homeless.” The reporter fails to consider that experiencing houselessness in New York State in the dead of winter ought to raise larger questions about the social abandonment of people living in deep poverty, and how that neglect makes them far more likely to have run-ins with law enforcement. The final line of the piece notes that “Sheriff DuMond took the opportunity to again criticize the bail-reform legislation in a news release.” The author has built an entire story around the assertions of a known detractor of bail reform, but this somehow passes the smell test because the source of this information is in law enforcement.
The media shouldn’t treat police chiefs and sheriff’s departments as neutral parties on the subject of bail reform. Their political arms have long opposed these changes, and they have institutional incentive to message against them. Pretrial cash bail is a powerful tool for police and prosecutors alike to extract confessions, turn arrestees into informants, and achieve longer sentences for prosecutors—all conflicts of interest never mentioned when local media treats them as objective bureaucrats who are simply calling balls and strikes. As such, the recent wave of scary tales involving Bad Guys going “back on the streets” are not without political context and potential ulterior motive. Local reporters ought to be highlighting these conflicts—or at least attempt to give voice to reformers—not mindlessly repeating decontextualized tales of criminals run amok from institutions very much invested in peeling back already modest reforms.