Local numbers are in as NY courts are releasing at least 3,800 inmates in county prisons under a new law that takes effect Jan. 1
ALBANY — New York courts are in the process of releasing at least 3,800 inmates in county prisons under a new law taking effect Jan. 1 that ends cash bail for many offenses.
The number of prisoners across the state to be released was tallied by the USA TODAY Network New York by contacting all 62 counties in New York in recent weeks as courts go case by case to determine who needs to be let go. All but nine small counties responded.
Locally, Steuben County ranked ninth in the state with 125 prisoners set to be released. Allegany County has 28 prisoners slated for release Jan. 1, while Livingston County has 20.
The measure, passed by the state Legislature in March, has become increasingly controversial as law enforcement officials said they fear it will lead to dangerous criminals back on the streets in cases that involve burglary, domestic incidents or drug arrests.
And they warn that, without holding prisoners on cash bail, it will be difficult to get them to return for their court dates. The estimated number of prisoners being released would be enough to fill some upstate arenas, like those in Utica, Elmira and Poughkeepsie.
“I am upset. I am very concerned for the safety of our citizens,” said Brooks Baker, the Republican district attorney in Steuben County in the Southern Tier.
The district attorneys in Allegany and Livingston counties have also voiced opposition, with legislators in Allegany County calling on the state to delay implementation of the reform.
The law has divided Republicans and Democrats, upstate and downstate, and police and prison reformers.
And in the coming weeks, the release of hundreds of inmates from some counties will undoubtedly draw more scrutiny over a law passed by Democrats in Albany that critics said was hastily approved with little input from police, local leaders or district attorneys.
Local officials estimated about 25% to 30% of their jail populations may soon be released.
“What we are saying is there was a disconnect or a lack of a conversation in general,” said Binghamton Mayor Richard David, a Republican.
Supporters called the new law “historic” as New York joins California and New Jersey as states that have severely restricted the use of cash bail.
Advocates said for too long, those arrested on low-level offenses were kept in jail simply because they couldn’t afford to pay their way out of prison, particularly among poor minorities.
“We’re going to see a reduced reliance on money,” said Nicole Triplett, policy counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The reforms will also reduce the use of electronic monitoring and require judges to disclose the reasons for setting bail in cases it is required, such as violent felonies and certain misdemeanors.
“Often times you didn’t know the rationale for why someone was being released, why they were issued a certain bail amount,” Triplett said.
What the new law ending cash bail will do
Ending cash bail was a major part of criminal justice reforms passed by the Democratic-controlled state Legislature in March.
Cash bail will be ended for most misdemeanors and Class E felonies, which can include charges of theft, assault or aggravated harassment.
Instead, those charged would receive appearance tickets.
District attorneys and sheriffs held joint news conference across New York earlier this month to rip the law.
They said judges should still have discretion over who should be released without cash bail, saying judges know best the flight risk of those accused and whether they might commit additional crimes.
New York City estimates 880 prisoners will be released in the coming weeks because they had been held on cash bail under parameters that are soon no longer legal
Courts have already started to stagger the releases, aiming to avoid a crush of cases on Jan. 1. Some counties said they started to release those charged in recent months to comply with the coming law.
“A plan is being developed to stagger the release of defendants starting in mid-December,” said Lucian Chalfen, spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration.
“If a judge, however, feels that it was necessary to make certain securing orders effective Jan. 1, 2020, they certainly retain the discretion to do so.”
Westchester County District Attorney Anthony Scarpino, a Democrat, said he supports the bail reform, and the county has already decriminalized marijuana possession and taken other steps to limit incarceration.
But he also has concerns about inmates being released on certain charges, such as domestic violence or soliciting of children, that can lead to unsafe individuals being released.
“We have been supportive of the bail reform, but there are still a few charges that are eligible for cash bail that we feel should be revisited,” he said.
Law enforcement across the state have offered similar warnings and raised other issues.
Some inmates come into court with serious drug addictions that can be addressed with jail stints. Instead, they will be back on the streets as their cases wade through the judicial process, officials said.
“There are 50 to 60 offenders in the county jail who are drug dependent; about half of them are on medical-assisted treatment through the drug rehabilitation program through the jail,” Dutchess Count District Attorney William Grady said.
“When they are released on their own, courts can’t mandate them back into treatment.”
Nine counties did not provide the number of inmates they expected to release. Some counties said the cases were fluid and couldn’t be estimated. Others simply did not respond.
All the counties cautioned that their figures were estimates and that each case was being reviewed by court officials.
Why supporters say ending cash bail will help New York
An NYCLU report last year examined eight upstate counties, including Monroe, Ulster, Dutchess, Orange and Westchester, from 2010 to 2014 and found some counties had inmates able to post bail more readily than others.
For example, the proportion of people who were not able to post bail the day it was set ranged from 55% of pretrial detainees in Niagara County to 92% who could not in Westchester County.
Moreover, those who remained in custody for seven days or more ranged from under 20% in Orange County to 57% in Westchester.
Other findings over the four-year period:
More than 90,000 New Yorkers spent a day or longer in custody on bail; more than 45,000 were held for a week or longer.
Black pretrial detainees were twice as likely as white detainees to spend at least one night in custody on bail.
Also, 60% of people held on bail had either a misdemeanor or a violation as their most serious charge, the report said.
“Wealth should not determine whether a person, accused but not convicted of a crime, will be jailed while awaiting trial,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in March when the measure passed the state Legislature.
The law eliminates bail as an option in nearly all misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, except sex-offense misdemeanors and some domestic-violence misdemeanors.
Bail can be set in the most violent felonies, such as conspiracy to commit murder, terrorism-related offenses and sex offenses against children, according to the Center for Court Innovation, a New York-based justice reform advocacy group.
The group found that of the 205,000 criminal cases that were arraigned in New York City in 2018, money bail would have been an option in only 10% of cases if the law was already on the books.
The new law also requires judges to set at least three forms of bail options for those charged, which can improve the chances a charged individual can be released.
Proponents said the reforms will lead to less crime because they will help stabilize communities.
“Less incarceration actually creates more safety, because the things that create safety in communities is stability. It’s people being able to have access to housing, to jobs, to education,” said Erin George, civil rights campaigns director for Citizen Action of New York.
The state, George said, should be investing in public resources like mental health services and addiction treatment instead of relying on prisons and jails to provide such services.
Advocates said opponents are engaging in “fear mongering.”
New Jersey implemented a restriction on use of cash bail in 2017, and violent crimes have declined since the law was put in place, according to the New York Daily News. But the New Jersey law offers judges more discretion than New York’s.
“This new law has been done in other states. It was done in the state of New Jersey several years ago, and it has actually worked very well,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who supports the law, said earlier this month.
He added, “I don’t anticipate any of these unintended consequences. If a local government thinks they want to change, or alter or take additional precautions in accordance with state law, they can do that.”
More: New York state budget deal reached: Everything you need to know
Why law enforcement remains unconvinced over new bail reform
Lawmakers said the effort was inspired in part by the case of Kalief Browder, a teenager at Rikers Island jail for three years awaiting trial in a case that ultimately was dismissed.
Browder later committed suicide.
“Too often for our communities of color and for those living in poverty, the justice system is unjust,” Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens, who sponsored the bill, said when the bill passed.
But law enforcement officials said the law has inconsistencies.
“Other than Rikers Island, the system works. We’re all being penalized because of the situation there,” Steuben County Sheriff James Allard said.
In one, a man was accused of threatening his family with a gun, then chasing them and knocking down the door of a neighbor’s house where the family had fled. He was slapped with myriad charges, but couldn’t be held on bail, Allard said.
Bail can offer “a cooling off” period for the accused and their victims in domestic violence cases, district attorneys said. That will soon not happen in most cases, unless there are serious injuries or a weapon is used, they said.
“Today an arrest is usually made in domestic violence,” Dutchess County Sheriff Butch Anderson explained. “That won’t happen now — people will be issued appearance tickets and go about their business. This is not fair to the victim.”
What happens next with bail reform?
Republican lawmakers in state and local governments, as well as law enforcement officials, are urging the state Legislature to delay the implementation of the law.
But there is no indication from Democrats that they will do so. The state Legislature returns to the Capitol in January for a six-month session.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said Monday that no changes are expected.
“I think that people understand why we did this,” she told reporters.
“When you have somebody who has been accused of a non-violent felony or misdemeanor and you’re in jail for years at a time, unconvicted, it makes no sense. Why? Because there was a few hundred dollars that your family couldn’t come up with? So, there gets a point where you are criminalizing poverty.”
Local officials said another concern is the revised “discovery” law, which advocates said will help speed up trials so fewer people are left in prison awaiting the adjudication of their cases.
Prosecutors will be required to provide discovery to the defense within 15 days after arraignment and will have to make certain disclosures before most negotiated guilty pleas.
The new deadlines will add to costs for local courts, and some fear it will lead to witness intimidation if details are released to defendants so quickly after an arrest.
“The changes to discovery will have a chilling effect on people willing to come forward as witnesses,” Washington County District Attorney J. Anthony Jordan said.
Police and district attorneys are worried those released without bail may not show up for their court cases, particularly those who are arrested, but live in other parts of the state or another state.
Then police will have to issue warrants and use their resources to travel into other jurisdictions to find the accused, who sometimes do not even have addresses, they said.
“If someone has a kilo of fentanyl, which can kill a lot of people, and they are driving through Orange County with tickets to New Mexico, we are not allowed to ask for bail,” said Christopher Borek, Orange County assistant district attorney.
Also, once inmates are released, it is uncertain whether they will receive the social services needed to straighten out their lives. Counties said they are increasing their partnerships with local agencies to provide support systems to those released without bail.
Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright noted a case in April when two men from New York City were arrested in one of the largest drug busts in local history.
Each of them had prior felony convictions that sent them to state prison and face substantial prison sentences on the latest charges.
“On January 1, when the new law takes effect, they will be released without bail,” Carnright said in a statement.
Includes reporting by Poughkeepsie Journal staff writers Saba Ali, John W. Barry and Geoffrey Wilson; Democrat and Chronicle staff writer Gary Craig; Journal News staff writers Jonathan Bandler and Steve Lieberman; USA TODAY Network New York staff writer Jon Campbell and Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin staff writer Anthony Borelli.