Poverty is Not a Crime: New York’s Bail Law Explained
There’s a lot of bad information about the new bail laws. I’m here to give you the facts.
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, one of the most effective strategies that the federal government used to sow tension and destruction was divide and conquer. It seems so easy to see now, but at that time, no one really had a clear-eyed view of what was going on. All they knew was that things were happening, people were dying, and relationships were changing. The sober truth is that our movement leaders and community folks didn’t fall for this because they were simpletons, they were far from that. And it wasn’t because the government was so brilliant in their approach. The government just used the multitude of tools available to cause fissures where they could find them.
One of the most effective tools they used was the media. With the help of conservative media and white supremacists working as journalists, they used trumped-up stories and false narratives to misrepresent the work that organizers were doing. It’s why you hear more about Dr. King’s “I Had a Dream” speech than you do about his anti-war rhetoric. It’s why people still see the Black Panthers as a “violent group of radicals” instead of the community leaders that started the school breakfast program and registered hundreds of black people in Oakland to vote. It’s why despite years of contrary evidence and even more lived experience, there is still the false idea that black people are somehow more violent and criminal than white people. We aren’t, but our “justice” system would have you think differently.
It’s simple, whenever there is a movement for policy or ideas that will benefit the lives of poor, black and brown people, a counter-narrative comes alive with the goal of doing everything it can to undermine that progress. Why would they do that, you ask? It’s simple: those in power need someone without it in order to remain on top.
During the Civil Rights movement, it was the FBI with COINTELPRO. In modern times, its attacks towards the Black Lives Matter movement, the pro-Palestine movement, and the fight to reform our racist criminal justice system. Recently that energy has been targeted at New York.
For those of you who don’t know, as of January 1, 2020. Thousands of New Yorkers will no longer have to sit in jail because they can’t afford an arbitrary bail amount. District attorneys with anti-black preferences and an interest in keeping the profitable prison industry thriving have already begun to push back on it, claiming that the bill will let out “violent criminals and rapists.” This narrative is completely false. So, in an effort to help folks understand what’s happening, I decided to write this explainer.
Here’s what you should know:
New York’s bail reform requires most defendants — roughly 85% of current charges — to be released while waiting for their day in court. Advocates expect the average daily jail population to drop by about 2,500 in NYC and 7,000–8,000 in the rest of the state. Specifically, the new law:
- Eliminates both money bail and pretrial detention for nearly all misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, and some violent felony charges, while preserving bail and detention as options in most violent felonies.
- In cases still eligible for money bail, judges must consider affordability, must make bail decisions on the record, and requires a third form of bail — partially or unsecured bond — to be set in cases still eligible for money bail (these are less financially burdensome forms).
- The bill requires police to issue a field appearance ticket and release people — instead of arresting, or taking to a police station and booking — for all low-level charges up to an E felony (there are exceptions for specific scenarios including when a person has a bench warrant, prior instances of failure to appear in court, etc.)
- New options will be available to courts to aid people in returning to court instead of using money bail. The bill requires the court or pretrial services to notify all people released pretrial of all court appearances in advance by text messages, telephone calls, email or first class mail. and finally,
- Electronic monitoring is an option for a limited set of charges, but only after a showing that no other realistic monetary condition or set of non-monetary conditions will suffice to reasonably.
Those are the basics of the new law. Does it mean that things will be perfect? Obviously not, but the goal isn’t to make a perfect law, it’s to help reduce the daily harm that this racist “justice” system does to our communities. The current system has been a complete failure. Instead of making our communities safer, the over-policing and incarceration of poor, black and brown people have only made our neighborhoods more unstable, broken up families, and caused financial ruin.
If the concern is safety, we should be doing everything we can to make sure everyone has the basic necessities available to live with peace and dignity. That means affordable housing, access to healthcare and medicine, properly funded mental health support, and a complete reinvestment into our public schools and deeply impacted communities. Real investment into real communities has more power to make safer streets than an army of police or an arbitrary bail.