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By Michael Diaz
Since January 1st, a brand new bail reform law in New York has been in effect. The law removes cash bail and pretrial detention for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, in an effort to make the system less prejudiced towards less fortunate communities. Across the country, it is estimated that around 67 percent of inmates in county jails are there for pretrial detention; a large portion of that number attributed to the fact that those inmates are simply not wealthy enough to pay their bail and be released. According to the Center for Court Innovation, the reform intends to lower that number in New York by upwards of 40 percent.
While many cases end without a jail sentencing, many critics of the reform fear for the consequences of allowing potential criminals back on the streets before arraignment. As the days pass, communities in New York are watching the effects of the reform. And while some say it is too early to see the full effects, others are already calling for changes to the reform.
Since the beginning of 2020, critics of the reform have been going back and forth. Examples of repeat offenders being released without bail fuel the battle even further. Tiffany Harris is a Brooklyn woman who was arrested three times in one week by the NYPD, twice for misdemeanor hate crime assaults, and the third for failing to report to court. Gerod Woodberry, a man wanted for four robberies and attempted robberies at Chase banks around Manhattan, was released under the new reform only to move on quickly and, authorities say, rob his fifth. According to court documents, Woodberry was quoted saying after his arrest and release on January 9th, “I can’t believe they let me out.”
Critics of the reform say these are examples of why this law is already failing. In the case of Tiffany Harris, opponents are pointing to the fact that nonviolent cases were not meant to be included in the reform. However, Harris was brought in after physically attacking two women. The reform includes a number of violent crimes, including 3rd-degree assault, vehicular assault/manslaughter, arson, killing a police dog or police horse, among others. Opponents of the reform worry that while awaiting their court dates, criminals have the opportunity to either commit further crimes or try to escape the situation altogether.
Nicole Bohling, an employee at the Seaqua Deli in Patchogue, lives near a man accused in a fatal drunk driving crash. “The law currently is not the right way to handle things; there is no justice,” she said, following a fatal crash in Shirley. Authorities say Jordan Randolph, 40, was drunk when he crashed into Jonathan Armand Flores-Maldonado, 27, on the William Floyd Parkway and killed him. Randolph was released the following day. The community backlash against his release has been strong. “Yea, I feel like I’m in danger,” said Bohling, “it’s unsafe.”
Advocates of the reform hit back by saying the attention the aforementioned cases are gaining are just a form of cherry-picking by critics, and that cases like these are only a fraction of what the reform effects.
Legislators who support the reform are telling communities and law enforcement to give the reform time to show its true effect. “The most violent crimes are still covered under bail,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said within the opening weeks of the reform. He said in an exclusive interview with Spector News, “If you willfully don’t show up to your day in court, you can be remanded for bail. So I think people should just have some patience and let the law take effect.”
On Tuesday, January 14th, FTC reporters went to sit in on the arraignments happening at the Suffolk County District Courts. In D11, Judge Gaetan B. Lozito, presiding over arraignment court for the first time, granted eight releases on one’s recognizance, or RORs, out of the nine cases, without any discussion of bail. RORs grant the defendant freedom until their upcoming court dates, with the agreement that they will show up to their court date.
The prosecutor attempted to have Judge Lozito post bail for one of the cases, a man who was being charged with violating protective orders and domestic violence. The request was denied, and the man was released from his handcuffs, under the promise that he would attend his mandated court date. The judge read the same short speech to each person that stood across from her, reminding them that they are solely responsible their court date attendance, the consequences of not appearing, and making sure that their preferred contact method was confirmed. At the beginning of the day, Judge Lozito told the awaiting audience that it would be a long day, and after two hours and only nine cases completed, this was proven true.
Steven Zalewski, currently a criminal defense attorney but previously the owner of one of the largest bail-bond companies in New York State, was available in court for some questions. Zalewski explained how in recent years, he has been involved in helping legislators provide reform that would “balance the needs of people who are accused of crimes with the needs of the public to be safe and giving judge’s discretion to determine whether or not it’s logical to set bail or not.”
Zalewski added, “Unfortunately, what this law has done is remove [the] most essential point of balance, which is discretion,” which is a common thought among many New York citizens, who criticize the lack of ability given to the judges to decide whether or not a crime requires bail to be posted. He claimed that the bail bonds industry did studies that proved that bail reform in other states have been ineffective, but when provided to legislators, these studies were ignored. “No one was interested in that (the studies). They wanted to make a law. They wanted to say they were being progressive, when ironically New York State probably has the most progressive bail laws of any other state,” he said.
Zalewski believes that reform was necessary, but judging people by such a large scale is “silly,” and that giving judge’s discretion back would be the quickest start to fixing the reform:
“There were certain factors that a judge could determine, for instance, your tie to the community, whether you had open cases, how many times you’ve been arrested, the nature of the crime. They took those away and basically said you have to decide whether the person can afford bail or not and then release them. And then they take certain crimes and presume they should be released. If you restore that discretion back to the court, then a judge could logically make a decision whether or not bail should, in fact, beset, on any crime.”
Regardless of how communities react, the true decisions lie within the hands of the New York politicians in Albany. Michael Dawidziak, President of Strategic Planning Inc., a polling and political consulting company, believes that one of the issues with the current situation is the divide in Albany. “Albany has always been ruled, if you will, by the three people in the room,” he says. The three people Dawidziak are referring to are Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, all of who are divided, according to Dawidziak. “The Governor feels, unequivocally, something needs to be done. The Senate Leader is open to possible changes. The Assembly Leader doesn’t think enough time has gone by to adequately judge the law.”
In a recent press conference, Cuomo was quoted saying, “There’s no doubt this is still a work in progress, and there are other changes that have to be made.”
“I think we need to take a look,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in an interview on CBS New York’s The Point:
“We want to take a look at reforming the system, but making sure we do it right.”
Lining up with Michael Dawidziak’s quote, Assembly Leader Carl Heastie’s quotes take a different stance on than the previous two mentioned. In a recent press conference, Heastie was quoted saying, “I think I’m ready to let the law continue the way it is. We want safe communities, but it is important to have a criminal justice system that treats everybody equally.”
Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie did not reply to our request for comment for this story.