As we entered the new year and new decade this week, New York also took tremendous steps in becoming safer and fairer by implementing significant changes to the state’s criminal justice system. These reforms — eliminating cash bail for many misdemeanors and low-level, non-violent felonies, requiring evidence to be available to the accused before trial, and ensuring access to a speedy trial — are common sense changes that have been implemented in red and blue states across the country.
In fact, in New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina and Texas, crime rates have gone down since similar changes were implemented, and continue to decrease.
Under the former system, New York’s criminal justice system had two tracks: one for those with means, and one for those without. If a defendant had money to pay set cash bail, they could remain free while the case was pending. If they couldn’t pay up, they languished in jail--often for weeks, months, or more.
Instead of being able to take care of children and relatives, participating in their churches and synagogues, going to work and providing for their families, those unable to post bail sat in jail, waiting. Relationships damaged, finances stretched, jobs lost — all contributing to a cycle of poverty and further incarceration. Simply because they did not have readily available funds to pay for their freedom.
By reducing reliance on cash bail, our justice system will be more balanced. Our jails will no longer be filled with those who have not been convicted of any crime. Our communities will be safer and stronger.
As opponents push their fear-mongering misinformation around these changes, it is important to remember: Bail is not supposed to be punishment—it is supposed to ensure that the accused show up for their day in court. The reforms provide judges with more effective methods of pretrial accountability and more options for ensuring defendants appear for court, including mandatory participation in pretrial services, travel and firearm restrictions, and electronic monitoring.
Most importantly, despite misleading statement, the reforms do not extend to those charged with serious violent crimes, for whom judges can still set bail or impose pretrial detention without bail.
The current system is not only failing those in cities downstate, but in every community across the state. County jails are filled with people not yet convicted of any crime — in rural, suburban, and urban areas from Buffalo to Long Island.
These reforms mean safety, justice, and fairness — values all New Yorkers hold strong.
All New Yorkers deserve an equal opportunity for justice — and this is a critical step to right the longstanding wrongs of an outdated system that overincarcerated so many in communities across the state.
Norman Reimer is the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and board chair of New Yorkers United for Justice.