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Bail reform must focus on public safety

On Jan. 1, 2020, dramatic changes to New York’s criminal justice system took effect, shifting priority from crime victims to benefit criminals, even allowing the release of violent felons. New York’s approach to bail reform was rushed, insensitive, destabilizing and flat-out dangerous.

Changing the course of a system developed over decades required time, sensitivity and hard work. Yet this major criminal justice overhaul was accompanied with little time to acclimate, no coordination and only a vague promise of savings. Consider the effort to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years of age. The changes were phased in gradually, giving the system time to prepare, guidance was developed, and financial support was offered to cover the cost of implementation.

New York’s version of bail reform also varies greatly from the approach of other states. In New Jersey, courts were given over two years to implement their bail reform law. They also created a new pretrial service unit with trained staff in each county, centralized data collection and provided funding to local jurisdictions. Contrast with New York, which provided just eight months to prepare, limited coordination and training, and no additional funding, not even to support localities that didn’t have pretrial service programs.

These many shortcomings are not even the most striking. As New Jersey logically shifted from a system that relied heavily on cash bail as a condition of release to one which instead focused on a defendant’s risk of failing to appear and committing new crimes, New York instead decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater — no consideration of dangerousness or threat to society or one’s self.

Instead of choosing a path of responsible and beneficial reform, New York’s leaders chose a headline-grabbing, knee-jerk reaction to score political points. Additionally, Albany leaders ignored the important voices of law enforcement professionals and prosecutors who warned the rushed plan was flawed and doomed to create the unstable and perilous criminal justice crisis we now experience.

Instead, criminal justice reform in New York could have been done in an inclusive and more effective manner to create a system that is fairer and reduces incarceration while not losing the most important goal of keeping society safe. In Dutchess County, we have done that.

Since 2014, Dutchess County has reduced our jail population by 30% through initiatives designed to divert lower risk and/or mentally ill defendants from jail, including building our Stabilization Center, providing Crisis Intervention Training to law enforcement, and utilizing a sophisticated array of evidenced-based pretrial diversion practices. These reforms and others were achieved through a deliberative process with input from the community members, service providers, criminal justice practitioners and other stakeholders who comprise the Dutchess County Criminal Justice Council. This change took time, and required community-wide buy-in and a lot of hard work. It did not require upending what worked to fix what was broken — we adhered to the first principle of policymaking “first do no harm.”

Dutchess has a well-developed apparatus to enact system changes, but others lack the capacity and resources to quickly transition. The New York State Council of Probation Administrators pointed out there are counties “which will have to develop pre-trial release programs from scratch to meet the requirements of the legislation.” The shift from pre-trial detention to pre-trial release has real costs and takes real time. Although the state has promised savings associated with a reduction in jail population, it must allow those savings to come to fruition by directing the Commission of Correction to immediately approve staffing reductions at jails. Still, savings will only be realized over time. This shift requires new funding now.

During his two-hour long State of the State address last week, Gov. Cuomo failed to even mention the misguided so-called bail reform plan indicating to all there is no plan and maybe not even the willingness to address this ill-conceived idea.

The chaos from the rushed and poorly supported implementation threatens not only public safety and the rule of law, but also the principle and purpose of the reforms. Whether you believe wholeheartedly in New York’s bail reform or vehemently oppose such reform, the smart move — the right move — is to demand state lawmakers amend the current law to require the evaluation of risk, provide support for the localities responsible for implementation, and to require the state to play a more active role in coordination – all with the most important focus of keeping residents safe in their homes and communities.

We must get this right. Too much is at stake.

Marc Molinaro is the Dutchess County executive and was the Republican nominee for governor of New York in 2018. He lives in Red Hook.

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