Changes to the bail system have been a focus for those advocating criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. Reports from New York underscore the need for a deliberate and thoughtful approach to the problem.
The system has been a problem for many lower-income offenders, as researchers with the Vera Institute for Justice noted after studying Oklahoma County practices in 2016 at the behest of a local reform-minded task force. Researchers said the bail schedule was such that roughly 80% of the jail’s population comprised people being held pre-trial. One-fourth of those in jail were being held for low-level municipal and traffic offenses such as public drunkenness or not having a driver’s license at the time of a traffic stop.
Vera said the system was such that “wealthier defendants can bond out regardless of the danger they pose to the community, while less affluent defendants may be held on small amounts of bail even for nonviolent misdemeanors.”
A similar dynamic led New York’s legislature to abolish cash bail altogether in 2019. Among the drivers for the new law was the case of a 16-year-old boy who was charged with stealing a backpack and then spent three years on Rikers Island, without being tried or convicted, because his parents couldn’t afford bail.
The law, which took effect Jan. 1, removed judges’ authority to keep in jail those they deemed to be a potential menace — a major flaw, as new data make clear.
The New York Police Department reports that major crime increased 22.5% in February compared with the same month last year.
Through the first two months of the year, the NYPD says, 482 people “who had already been arrested for committing a serious crime such as robbery or burglary were rearrested for committing an additional 846 crimes.”
Thirty-five percent of the crimes fell among the city’s seven major crime categories, such as murder, rape, felony assault and grand larceny. The total represented a nearly three-fold increase over the first two months of last year.
The report was startling enough to elicit concern from Mayor Bill de Blasio, which is saying something because he takes a backseat to no progressive.
“There’s a direct correlation to a change in the law, and we need to address it, and we will address it,” de Blasio said. He also defended the police department against critics who called the figures “scare tactics” by the men and women in blue. “They’re wrong,” he said.
City and county officials here have implemented changes in recent years that have helped reduce the county jail’s population. Bail reform remains a goal, including at the Legislature, but New York offers a cautionary tale. (Chicago, too has seen problems with bail reform.)
Prior to the session, the author of a bail reform bill carried over from last year said it’s an important effort but shouldn’t be rushed. “I’m all in favor of let’s do it,” he said, “but let’s do it right.” That approach is on point.
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