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New York rolls back bail reforms that gave judges more discretion

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

New York is rolling back some of the bail reforms passed in recent years. Governor Kathy Hochul has said the state will keep repeat offenders off the streets. But activists say reforming bail laws makes the criminal justice system more just, and they say it reduces overcrowding in jails. A similar debate is playing out in several cities and states across the country. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Several years ago, New York passed bail reform, which, among other things, ended cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. The idea was stop punishing poor people who can't afford to post bail while they're waiting for trial. Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the NYCLU.

DONNA LIEBERMAN: It was a huge step in the right direction to right decades of massive wrongs that harmed, overwhelmingly, people of color.

GARSD: But as crime rose during the pandemic, some detractors blamed bail reform. They said people who should have been detained until trial were back on the streets committing more crimes. Rafael Mangual is a head of research at the Manhattan Institute.

RAFAEL MANGUAL: While the entirety of the crime increase in 2020 and '21 can't be laid at the feet of bail reform, I think it's very clear that the reform did contribute to a substantial enough decrease in public safety.

CRYSTAL RODRIGUEZ: Not everyone agrees. There have been studies more recently that show that bail reform has not had the impact of increasing crime locally.

GARSD: Crystal Rodriguez is policy director at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Rodriguez says excessive media coverage of some crimes and political opportunism have led to the incorrect impression that overall crime is rising, and that has led to the recent bail reform changes in New York. Some of those involved judges. They still can't set bail for most misdemeanor and nonviolent charges, but they have more leeway on what restrictions they can impose for other charges. Rodriguez suspects that means more folks going to jail.

RODRIGUEZ: I think the removal of this language may influence judges to lean more heavily into pretrial detention for the cases where bail and pretrial detention are still permissible.

GARSD: The charges have led to discontent on both sides of the political spectrum. Criminal justice reform advocates worry this will further target poor people, especially people of color. Conservatives say it doesn't do enough. In recent years, several states have attempted to change their bail laws, and it's been controversial. One of those states is Illinois, where reforms are now being challenged in the Supreme Court. Rafael Mangual says a more effective change would be for judges to set bail by considering the public safety risk posed by someone awaiting trial.

MANGUAL: Right? How many times have they been arrested in total? How many prior convictions do they have? What are the nature of those prior convictions? You know, how old are they? All of those things together are more predictive than is this person charged with murder, or is this person charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor?

GARSD: Again, Crystal Rodriguez from John Jay College says...

RODRIGUEZ: There has been a shift or a backlash to some of the criminal justice reform policies that have been implemented, bail reform being one among them.

GARSD: She says it's unclear how the change in New York will play out, but it speaks to a larger change in attitudes nationwide towards reforming the criminal justice system. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.