Most of us were raised on the principle of bail for accused criminal offenders, a principle that also carried the discretion of the judge on allowing or denying bail. This is all about to change in 10 weeks.
Police and prosecutors in the Twin Counties are bracing for a sea change in policies in reaction to criminal justice reforms unlike anything ever seen before. Under new bail restrictions, judges will no longer be able to weigh the risk to public safety and order defendants jailed on bail unless they are charged with certain violent or sexual felony charges. Instead, defendants will be issued appearance tickets in nearly all cases. Dozens of offenses will no longer qualify for bail, such as aggravated vehicular homicide, failure to register as a sex offender, aggravated cruelty to animals, torturing and injuring animals, third- and fourth-degree arson, making a terroristic threat, second-degree manslaughter, criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds.
It promises to be a revolutionary transformation, but police and prosecutors here and across New York state have serious reservations about what is to come Jan. 1, when bail reform goes into effect.
“The new laws will substantially change nearly every aspect of law enforcement work, from the first 911 calls through trials and appeals,” Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka said last week. “It is a major challenge for us and cannot, and should not, be minimized.”
Greene County District Attorney Joseph Stanzione expressed similar sentiments. “The theory behind bail is two-fold: to insure they return to court and to protect society from an individual accused of committing a serious offense,” he said. “These reforms are focusing on the rights of the accused rather than the safety and security of the community.”
Reaction to the crimes affected by the new bail laws has been one of amazement. Appearance tickets for suspects charged with certain degrees of manslaughter, for example, is not sitting well with local law enforcement or elected officials.
Regardless of the immediate impact bail reform will have, it will inevitably come under intense scrutiny, and probably major adjustments, in the aftermath of public outcry. No-bail law is adequate for people accused of petty crimes, but inadequate to the complexity of crimes in today’s world. We can, under these new laws, release some suspects on appearance tickets and hope they don’t flee from prosecution or commit even more serious crimes while they wait for trial dates. What we can’t do is control the behavior of these people. Sooner rather than later, the new bail reform laws will themselves demand reform.