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What bail reform actually shows by the numbers: Albany law changes helped everyone facing charges


Quick quiz: what is the goal of bail reform?

If your first thought was to “allow people charged with a crime to avoid liability,” you failed the test. Crime is indeed a serious problem, but blaming bail reform is inaccurate. The issue was exploited for scaremongering in recent political campaigns, but now we can see it in cooler weather.

If your first thought was to “reduce racial profiling by making sure people of color accused of committing crimes don’t go to jail,” that too fails. He may have focused on racial justice in this debate, but the bail reform law is silent on race. It came into effect at a particularly difficult time: two months before the COVID lockdown and six months before the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests. He was not related to these events.

If your first thought was to “avoid jailing people accused of crimes, who, after all, at that point have not been found guilty, because they don’t have the money to post bail,” you passed the test. Previously, judges often required those accused of non-violent crimes to pay money to be released. Many were unable to pay and were imprisoned until their trial date. While there, they lost their jobs and strained their family connections, thereby destroying what little social capacity they and their communities had. Furthermore, this system pressured innocent people to plead guilty just to avoid pretrial detention.

If you failed the quiz, you may say that keeping criminal defendants in jail before court dates is unfortunate for them personally and uncomfortable with the idea of ​​”innocent until proven guilty,” but in fact avoid that the guilty commit crimes while awaiting trial. This concern seems plausible, so the researchers looked into crime statistics to see how many people committed “new crimes” while on probation. the number is small and is mostly limited to those accused of non-violent crimes, which is not surprising because the new bail law still allows judges to require bail for those accused of violent crimes, resulting in that many of them are imprisoned before trial.

If you failed the quiz because you thought the law was meant to reduce racial disparities, you could argue that you should still get credit for at least acknowledging this side effect of bail reform. You would point out that after the law went into effect, criminal defendants belonging to racial and ethnic minorities were less likely to be jailed waiting for their cases to be heard.

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TRUE. But so were the white defendants. we conducted a study of the effect of the bail law on racial and ethnic disparity. We found that the new law was beneficial to all racial and ethnic groups.

The bail law went into effect in January 2020. When comparing before and after statistics from 2019 to 2021, the percentage of white defendants forced to pay money for pretrial release in felony cases decreased 26%. The percentage decreases for African American and Hispanic defendants (14.0% and 15.8%, respectively) were smaller, but still a strong reduction.

Therefore, African-American defendants are more likely to be required to post money bail and remain in jail if unable to pay, and when judges require arrestees to pay bail money, average amounts are required. higher for Latino and black defendants than for whites. . But as the new bail law has slashed the use of cash bail for everyone, the worst effects of pretrial detention are being reduced across the board.

All defendants with limited financial resources benefited from extended release mandates. Black defendants, who tend to cluster toward the lower end of the economic scalethey gained considerable benefit from bail reform because they are overrepresented in arrests relative to their percentage of the population.

Surprisingly, the new law also had the positive effect of geographically regularizing bail practices. Previously, bail practices varied widely between municipalities and counties. Subsequently, the likelihood that judges would require arrestees to post monetary bail became more even across New York State.

Fixing racial injustice was not the goal of bail reforms. They worked as intended: they reduced the use of monetary bail and reduced the damage that falls disproportionately on the poorest people. Poor defendants, both white and non-white, maintained their family and community ties while waiting for their court date, and taxpayers did not pay to keep them in jail. These changes are a win for all.

Laaninen is a graduate student at John Jay College. The research reported here is from her master’s thesis. McCoy is a professor of criminal justice at the CUNY Graduate Center and John Jay College.

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