Last week, the Legislature passed groundbreaking laws to advance police accountability. Following years of demands by communities of color who suffer police brutality on a daily basis, the change happened because thousands of people marched in the streets, phoned, emailed and tweeted at their elected representatives demanding justice. State government responded and passed reforms that begin to move us towards real community safety. Because we repealed Civil Rights Law 50-a, and passed multiple other bills, police officers who engage in misconduct will no longer be able to hide behind a shield of impunity. Our communities demanded transparency and we proudly delivered.
But in the shadow of this victory, only weeks before the heart-wrenching death of George Floyd, our Legislature rolled back long-sought reforms to our troubled bail system. These rollbacks are a stain on the conscience of our state.
On Jan. 1, 2020, New York implemented historic bail and pretrial discovery reforms that were the result of years of debate in Albany. The laws eliminated cash bail and the possibility of pretrial detention for most misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges. They required prosecutors to turn over all of the evidence in a case early on, ending the trial-by-ambush practice previously allowed.
Thanks to the reforms, tens of thousands of New Yorkers arrested early this year were spared days or months in jail. Instead, they were released unless and until actually convicted, with pretrial services and support if needed. Jail populations across the state dropped by 30%, and continued to decline.
We never could have anticipated how prescient these reforms would be. We passed the pretrial justice package in 2019 because it was the right thing to do and because communities most impacted by mass incarceration demanded relief from the cycles of criminalization and incarceration that keep low-income people and New Yorkers of color locked in jails rather than thriving in their communities.
And then came the coronavirus. With the virus spreading like wildfire in jail, bail reform was not just changing lives, it was saving lives. We will never know how many thousands more would have been infected but for the 2019 pretrial reforms.
Yet despite the fact that the reforms were working, and a pandemic was taking hold, in April of this year, the governor and Legislature rolled back the reforms, ensuring that thousands more people, including the many New Yorkers who find themselves without jobs or stable housing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, will face the threat of pre-trial jailing once again come July 3.
Why? Because the police unions and their allies demanded it. For months, law enforcement officers and unions across the state decried that there would be blood in the streets if the reforms went into effect. When that didn’t happen, they decried the fact that a very small number of people who were released without bail were re-arrested, which has always been the case. And that was enough to scare a small majority of lawmakers into conceding. Once again, the police unions prevailed over the will of the community.
The events of the past few weeks have shown that our communities are fearless in demanding justice and an end to law enforcement practices shaped by generations of structural racism. New York has been ground zero for the coronavirus epidemic, and yet our constituents have taken to the streets to make known that they are sick and tired of police violence and a racially biased criminal punishment system.
The rollbacks may have passed, but it is not too late for us to act. We can take action before July 3 to ensure that they do not take hold. The governor can issue an executive order delaying the implementation of bail rollbacks, and halt pretrial injustice for our communities. We stand at the ready, arm in arm with directly impacted New Yorkers, with bold solutions. Let us roll back these rollbacks without delay.
This article was originally published by the New York Daily News on June 15th, 2020. The original article can be read here.