AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
During her State of the State Address last week, New York Governor Kathy Hochul revealed that she was open to once again revising her state’s radical bail reform policies – a major concession from one of the staunchest defenders of the 2019 law which eliminated cash bail for most offenses. While Hochul stopped well short of calling for a complete repeal of the legislation, it was the latest sign that so-called “woke justice” may be in retreat in deep-blue New York as crime numbers continue to skyrocket.
Three years ago, following similar moves by other states like New Jersey, California, and Illinois, New York abolished cash bail for all misdemeanors and most felonies, including arson and armed robbery. The law went into effect on January 1, 2020, over the vehement opposition of Republicans and law enforcement groups. At the time of the bill’s passage, New York City Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea expressed grave concern that “individuals are standing before a judge and immediately being released, and essentially everyone in the room knows that this person is a danger to the community.”
Just over three months after the bail law went into effect, violent crime skyrocketed, leading to widespread pushback from New Yorkers, particularly in New York City. Under immense pressure, the legislature passed some reforms to the law, including allowing judges to impose more conditions on pre-trial release of those accused of committing crimes.
But those changes did little to offset the disastrous consequences of the legislation. Over the first full year the law was in place, there were more than 100,000 cases where offenders who would have been held on bail were instead released. In one-fifth of those cases, the offenders were arrested again for a second crime while still awaiting trial for their first offense. Four thousand people released under the law were re-arrested for violent felonies, and several hundred were arrested for firearms-related crimes.
Crime rates continued to climb in 2021, becoming a major issue in elections throughout the state. In November of that year, Republican candidates upset Democratic incumbents in the Suffolk and Nassau County district attorney races amid continued public opposition to the law. Retired Police Captain Eric Adams also won New York City’s mayoral race on a platform of taking a hardline stance against violent crime – a clear rebuke of outgoing mayor Bill de Blasio’s embrace of bail “reform” and other woke criminal justice policies.
In 2022, New York’s crime problem continued to worsen and fomented division among Democrats in the state. Recognizing the political hazard posed by out of control crime, last year Hochul proposed more changes to the state’s bail laws, providing judges increased discretion in detaining criminal defendants.
But once again, the changes were more cosmetic than substantive and did little to alleviate the crime wave. In August, Mayor Adams openly slammed the state’s bail reform policies, even with the recent adjustments, saying that “our criminal justice system is insane.” Three months later in New York’s gubernatorial election, Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin far outperformed expectations and came within a few points of upsetting Hochul, largely on a platform of promising to enact stricter bail reform policies and crack down on violent crime. Zeldin’s performance was crucial in delivering the U.S. House of Representatives to the GOP, as many of the state’s Republican congressional candidates did better than expected and won their races.
No doubt realizing that she and other New York Democrats are still politically vulnerable on crime, last week Hochul called in her State of the State for yet more changes to the bail reform law. In a companion document released in conjunction with the speech, she specifically asked lawmakers to remove the requirement that judges impose the “least restrictive” means of ensuring that defendants return to court when it comes to those accused of serious crimes. In practice, this policy has forced courts to essentially allow violent criminals back onto the streets with almost no assurance that they would actually show up for their assigned court date.
However, Hochul stopped far short of calling for a full repeal of the law, and made no mention of Mayor Adams’s request for judges to be allowed to consider the “dangerousness” of defendants when setting bail – a seemingly common-sense policy. Though woke justice may be in retreat in New York, it is still far from dead.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.