There has been much clamoring recently about changes enacted last month to the state’s criminal justice system, most notably the elimination of cash bail for many defendants changed with nonviolent offenses.
Those opposed to the reforms are quick to point to high-profile cases — Montauk resident Lisa Rooney, who was released without bail after striking and killing a bicyclist in October while allegedly driving drunk, or Jordan Randolph, a 40-year-old Bellport resident with a history of DWI convictions accused of striking and killing a Westhampton Beach man in Shirley earlier this month, also released without bail — as indications of a failed system.
Those crimes are despicable, and if the allegations are true, the defendants should feel the full weight of the law. But the public is shortsighted in thinking that justice should be carried out by imprisoning those accused of crimes before they are convicted by due process — or to believe that the same defendants might not have been able to post bail and still be released.
Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr. missed the point last week when he objected to the reforms, which accounted for the release of 301 prisoners from the county jail system at the end of the year, citing concerns about public safety and the safety of law enforcement officers from those accused of violent crimes.
The bail system was never meant to be a punishment, it was never meant to be a deterrent, and it was never meant to be a replacement for a trial by one’s peers, a right guaranteed under the Constitution. Instead, bail simply was intended to be a form of collateral, meant to help guarantee that someone accused of a crime would show up for trial, leaving them free in the meantime to prepare a defense and provide for themselves and their families while awaiting their day in court.
But, over time, the system was perverted. It became a form of punishment — for some. It became a deterrent — at the expense of some. And it became a de facto trial — for some, who couldn’t afford the cost of their temporary freedom.
Poor and working class citizens were incarcerated every year by the thousands for days, weeks, months and even years, in some cases, before trial, or until a plea agreement could be reached. The system unfairly discriminated against defendants based on income — often targeting, perhaps unintentionally, members of minority populations.
Imagine being wrongfully accused of a crime but subjected to a “jail term” of months or years waiting to prove your case. Imagine losing your housing, your employment, perhaps even the support of family and friends while sitting a dank jail cell at the mercy of an uncaring and unfeeling system — because you simply don’t have the means to post bail.
Sheriff Toulon notes that there are social programs in the jail to help people get off drugs and alcohol and even learn a trade. While those sound wonderful, and might be beneficial, for someone convicted of a crime and serving their time at county lockup, social programs should not be used as an excuse to hold someone in the system who has not yet been tried. “Innocent until proven guilty” matters.
So the current reforms intended to put a halt to an inequitable system that further widened divisions along economic and social lines. However, while the reforms should be supported, both practicably and conceptually, there is room for tweaking the new rules.
The reforms contain absolutes: judges are prevented from requiring bail from defendants charged with specific crimes, without exception. They are given no discretion at all. The dictate was intended to prevent a slippery slope in which certain less progressive judges might consciously or unconsciously begin to once again target members of certain communities or people of minimal economic standing.
However, unbending mandates, while intended to promote fairness, may sometimes have the opposite effect. Judges should, in some cases, have the discretion to impose bail for some charges, particularly if they determine that the person charged would be a clear flight risk, or could pose a danger to themselves or someone else if released. There should be stringent guidelines as to when that discretion should be used, to ensure that the power is not abused, but it would be a reasonable revision.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. — who supports changes to the criminal justice system, including bail reform to ensure fairness for all those accused of crimes — has introduced legislation to update the reforms. Noting that the facts in each case may be different, the legislator has called for the addition of added crimes for which bail would be allowed, as well as for more discretion by judges. The legislation has merits and should be considered.
Our lawmakers should strive, as Mr. Thiele notes, to come up with a system that works to make sure the public is protected — but also ensures fairness for those accused.