Big problem with bail reform

New York state’s new “bail reform law” is flawed in many respects; regardless, it went into effect Jan. 1. You may be asking yourself, what does this law entail, and how will it affect the criminal justice system? After serving 29 years in law enforcement, I felt compelled to share with our community some of the chilling consequences of this new law.

First of all, the most egregious failure of the law is that it does not protect victims. It will allow criminals who commit a number of crimes to walk free, pending trial, and seriously inhibit law enforcement from protecting victims. I would like to speak to the public safety aspects of the law in the hope of shedding some light on what these “reforms” actually allow. Let me give three examples of how cases are being handled after Jan. 1.

1. A person breaks into your home, steals your possessions and urinates in the middle of your living room. He then takes your car keys and drives away in your car. Down the road, he hits a tree and “totals” your vehicle, fleeing on foot. He is immediately arrested by police and positively identified by witnesses. What happens next? As of Jan. 1, the police and justice court are required to let the perpetrator go with no bail being set or incarceration, pending his next court date. In a nutshell, he is back on the street; you may even bump into him. In the past, a crime of this magnitude would have resulted in the defendant being brought before a magistrate with bail being set and more than likely a stint in jail pending the next court date. It is more than understandable that the victims of this crime would not feel safe, not to mention the witnesses.

2. You are walking down Main Street minding your business when a person decides to punch you in the face. He breaks your nose and is arrested shortly thereafter. In New York state the appropriate charge would be assault in the third degree. You know the perpetrator, and he is positively identified by two other witnesses. Surely this violent act would result in bail being placed on this individual. Not anymore. The law does not allow for bail on misdemeanor assault. A broken nose, nonviolent? I don’t think so, do you? This individual gets to be released; hopefully he will not seek retribution and attack the victim or witnesses. But wait, would not an order of protection stop that from happening? Maybe, but after all, it is only a piece of paper.

3. An individual calls the school and threatens to bring in a weapon and kill as many students and teachers as he can. The police identify him and arrest him. The proper charge would be making a terrorist threat, a class D felony. What can the police and courts do at this point? The defendant must be released. Who is going to supervise the person 24 hours a day to ensure he does not act on the threat? No one. How about an ankle bracelet? Perhaps, but bracelets can be cut off, and have been. In the past, these people were committed to jail, where they could not act on the threat and could get mental health treatment if needed. In today’s day and age, with school shootings occurring throughout the country on a frequent basis, this is simply incredible.

These are not outrageous examples and have occurred in real-life instances. Is this the reform we want? Will victims feel safe in their homes knowing the perpetrator is out on the streets? Will witnesses? Where is the regard for public safety and security? Where is the respect for people and property? It is absent.

Another shortcoming of the law is that it takes away the discretion of local justices. The justices we the people duly elected to interpret and apply the law. After weighing the facts of a case, a justice should have the power to set bail when it is reasonable and warranted. This law takes away the ability to judge each case on its merits regarding the defendant and whether he/she will appear for future court dates.

One of the most sacred duties of the government is to provide security to the citizenry. Security to live our lives in peace and harmony. When the government fails to provide that security, then what? This law does not provide the level of security we preciously had available to us prior to this new law taking effect.

I could go on and on regarding a huge list of crimes that a person can no longer be incarcerated for pending a court date. I will only name three that are truly mind-boggling: resisting arrest, criminally negligent homicide and vehicular manslaughter. These are serious crimes. Furthermore, what is to ensure that persons who reside out of state, or in Canada, will come back to face their charges? As it stands, nothing.

Some would argue that the intention of bail is to solely ensure that defendants appear for their court dates, and they would be correct. But at the same time, it also has the unintended consequence of keeping violent people off the streets and providing some peace of mind to victims and witnesses.

As a career law enforcement officer, I take the safety of our community very seriously. This law takes tools out of the hands of the police and the courts to protect the people we serve. A law with no teeth is no law at all. As usual, the most vulnerable people in our communities will be put at risk.

The possible repercussions of the new “bail reform law” may sound scary to some readers, and it probably should. This law goes too far too fast. The people who crafted it did not take into consideration the real-world consequences it may have on ordinary citizens. Neither did they listen to the law enforcement community.

I am not against reform and agree that in some cases reform is necessary. Furthermore, I am not suggesting bail needs to be applied for petty offenses or minor, nonviolent violations. However, I feel that this law should be revisited and amended to protect victims and society as a whole. It appears that with the recent pushback, this may be happening. Hopefully, common sense will be applied before it is too late.

Charles A. Potthast Jr. is retiring next week as the village of Saranac Lake’s chief of police. He lives in Jay.