Mixed reviews for bail reform

The 2019-20 state budget agreement brought with it major changes to the criminal justice system. One plan is to eliminate bail, and with it the threat of jail, for many crimes as the defendants await trial. Many fear it may be a step too far.

Judges would still be able to issue bail if they believe that the person charged is a flight risk, but the new law will eliminate bail as a normal aspect of many cases and will require police to issue court appearance tickets to most people charged with misdemeanors or class E felonies instead of bringing them before a judge.

With a few exceptions, bail will be eliminated for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Petty theft, forgery and drug crimes are a few of the misdemeanors and felonies that will no longer have bail or jail in January 2020 when the reforms go into effect.

There will still be bail or jail for most violent felonies including homicide and assault charges, sex offense misdemeanors and felonies, criminal contempt charges for an order of protection violation in a domestic violence case, witness intimidation or tampering, conspiracy to commit murder, some offenses against children and terrorism-related charges, according to the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in New York.

“Wealth should not determine whether a person, accused but not convicted of a crime, will be jailed while awaiting trial,” said a press release from state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Some believe the reform will greatly help in New York City, where there is already a decline in the use of bail. A study from the New York City Criminal Justice Agency found, using its own data, that the number of cases where money bail was used has dropped from 43% in 1978 to 23% in 2018.

The got various perspectives on the change from criminal justice professionals throughout Franklin County.

Public defender

Franklin County Public Defender Thomas Soucia said the reform has long been needed, and not only for people from urban areas. He said many of his clients would benefit from the reform.

Soucia said the reform is necessary, and although it may overreach, he believes it’s a good starting point to solving an issue that has been problematic for a long time.

District attorney

The backlash has been loud and swift, however. The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York has come out against the reform, according to Franklin County District Attorney Craig Carriero. He is also against it.

“I don’t think this really helps public safety at all,” he said.

Carriero said the bill is misinformed and doesn’t take into account the victims.

Carriero said he deals with numerous crimes involving criminals from New York City and Canada. Those criminals, without bail, could return to their places of residence and flee the courts. For those in New York City, the district attorney’s office can issue a warrant, which Carriero says will cost taxpayers more money. For those charged with crimes who return to Canada, the district attorney’s office wouldn’t be able to bring them back. Carriero is worried this will happen.

“The appearance rate for many will be low,” Carriero said.

In November 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a special report that looked at the pretrial release of felony defendants in state courts in the 75 largest counties in the United States. It found that many had filed prior charges.

“About a third of released defendants were charged with one or more types of pretrial misconduct,” according to the report. “Nearly a fourth had a bench warrant issued for failing to appear in court, and about a sixth were arrested for a new offense. More than half of these new arrests were for felonies.”

The failure to appear rate among the felony defendants from the study for robbery was 21%, for burglary was 25%, for larceny/theft was 25%, for motor vehicle theft was 24%, for forgery was 24%, for fraud was 15% and for driving-related felonies was 18%.

The study also found that felony defendants released without bail were less likely to be rearrested than those who were given some sort of bail or bond. The rate of being rearrested was 17% for those released on their own recognizance, and for all other forms of bond varied from 18% at the lowest to 21% at the highest.

Carriero also believes the state legislature went overboard with what crimes aren’t eligible for bail. For example, those charged with burglary in the second degree would be released after their arraignment in court. He said this could be dangerous for civilians.

Law enforcement

Saranac Lake Police Chief Charles Potthast also disapproves of the bail reform legislation as it is currently written. The biggest disappointment, he said, is that there’s not a public safety provision.

Potthast, a retired state trooper, said that the crime rate has been touted as being low, which he believes it is, so why change things?

“In this area, the system does work,” Potthast said.

The total index crimes in Franklin and Essex counties dropped from 2013 to 2017, according to the New York State Criminal Justice Divisions. Index crimes include willful homicide, forcible rape, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, theft over $50, motor vehicle theft and arson. Essex County’s total index crimes dropped from 449 to 419 in those four years. In Franklin county they dropped from 876 to 688. In Saranac Lake they dropped from 179 to 61.

The state’s Division of Criminal Justice Statistics also found that the number of felony arrests from 2010 to 2018 in Essex County dropped from 218 to 197, although, in Franklin County they rose from 380 to 415. That same data set and same eight-year period showed that misdemeanor arrests in both counties dropped — from 609 to 505 in Essex County and 960 to 754 in Franklin County.

Potthast hopes the lawmakers will look again and ask law enforcement and the district attorney offices for guidance before implementing the law.

Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill, another retired state trooper, wrote in an email to the Enterprise that the outcome of enacting the reforms is an unknown, but it could have negative effects for local communities. Mulverhill wrote that the reforms could reduce the number of inmates in the county jail, but at the cost of the public’s safety. “I agree that bail should not be punitive however there are times the public needs to be protected until some sort of resolution can be reached,” Mulverhill wrote.

Mulverhill wrote that he believes the reforms could lead to an increase in bench arrest warrants being written for those who fail to appear. This would have an economic toll on law enforcement and possibly an increase in the inmate population.

“So as the system is put into place there is the possibility that the County Jail population will increase. Further more the additional resources utilized by law enforcement and probation will have to be paid for and where will that money come from,” Mulverhill wrote.

Town justice

Brighton town Justice Nik Santagate said he’s unsure of how the reforms will play out everywhere, but he expects the impact to be minimal.

Santagate said he only uses bail if he believes somebody will skip out on a court date.

“I use bail in a careful way,” Santagate said. “I use it for what it was meant to be, and that’s to ensure a reappearance.”

Santagate said he’s unsure if the legislation will affect the lower courts like his. He said his job likely won’t be affected too much.