ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — With an alarming number of shootings in New York’s cities this year, many point to bail reform as the cause.
The criminal justice reforms took effect in New York in 2020. In general, they focus on removing or limiting the use of cash bail against defendants who are accused of misdemeanors or nonviolent offenses. Advocates question the morality of incarcerating an individual who has not been found guilty, and the fairness of releasing those who can pay while detaining those who cannot.
Many law enforcement agencies attributed bail reform laws to the rise in violence we have seen in the state—even though the issue goes well beyond New York’s borders. In Rochester—where the relationship between police and the public can be tense—Monroe County Public Defender Erik Teifke says there’s no clear evidence to support the connection.
“The public is scared and they are concerned, and I can understand that. But they are being mislead. Something is being pitched to them as the reason, and there is no evidence to support that,” Teifke said. Teifke works as a Second Assistant Public Defender at Monroe County’s Public Defender’s Office.
According to a report from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, out of the 66 largest police jurisdictions, most saw an increase of violent crimes in 2020. “Crime had gone up in 63 of the 66 cities across the country. The vast majority of those cities were ones in states that had no recent reforms to their bail statutes,” Teifke said.
Teifke also said that blaming bail reform wouldn’t make sense based on past trends of crime in Rochester. “There’s been spikes in violent crime throughout our history and we have not had a real, hearty effort at bail reform, so how do you explain the prior spikes if it’s bail reform,” Teifke asked. “Because bail reform wasn’t in existence then?”
He instead points to the pandemic and the economic turmoil that has come with it as a better explanation for the violence. “The evidence does show when people are jobless and hopeless, they have too much time on their hands and they are desperate and they can’t succeed using lawful means and an unlawful means presents itself, they might take that option,” Teifke said.
However, many police departments, including Rochester’s, say some offenders who have been let out do end up committing violent crimes.
Last month, Chief Harriott-Sullivan with the Rochester Police Department, announced she was bringing in federal assistance to help with the city’s gun violence. The chief said data shows a high percentage of offenders are released on criminal possession of weapon charges or were out on low bail. She says the system needs a reboot.
“My focus here is on violent offenders with a gun violence history that get arrested more than once. And that, like I said, I want them in jail and I want them to stay there,” said Chief Herriott-Sullivan. “Judges have to follow certain processes I get it, but my feeling is, however, we have this structured, we just have to do something different.”
On Wednesday, the city announced a new federal task force to combat the surge in gun violence. One part of the 60-day plan is to focus efforts on using federal powers to arrest some of these repeat offenders.
“That’s why we are making enhanced use of these federal statutes and federal prosecutions, so we can try to break that cycle of people being arrested and rearrested and released and rearrested. We get them arrested and we want to hold them,” said U.S. Attorney James Kennedy. “The good citizens of Rochester, especially those living in our most violent neighborhoods, are entitled to feel safe in their homes and in their neighborhoods. And they should not be forced to live behind bars while criminals are given freedom to roam the streets.”
Teifke said while some offenders who are released make end up committing serious crimes, he says the majority do not. “We represent thousands and thousands and thousands of people every year, and there are no shortage of people that you can see would have two years ago had their entire lives ruined and this year they got to get out. They are home, they are at work, back going to class and showing up to their next court date, sure enough, and the world didn’t end. And it worked,” Teifke said.
Data shows crime has increased in cities across the country, not just those with bail reform measures. Experts say the pandemic is a big part of the problem, with people still out of work and stressed emotionally and financially. In November, Police in Houston said there was no doubt COVID played a factor in their city, where murders were up 44% and frustration on the force was said to be at an all-time high.
In fact, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said it’s time to take a hard look at the justice system and the way it treats repeat offenders. “Our cops are doing their job,” Chief Acevedo said at a press conference. “We’re going after the same violent criminals time and again because they’re going in one door and out the other. That’s a problem.”