To the editor:
We applaud the intent behind New York State’s bail reform initiatives, addressing long-standing racial and economic inequities in the criminal justice system. Reforms are long overdue and critically necessary. However, they need to be approached strategically and consider potential unintended consequences, including the safety of victims. Here, I will focus on an area with which I am most familiar: Domestic Violence.
John* was arrested seven times in 12 months on stalking and assault charges. On the eighth arrest he was charged with a felony. Each time John was released after an arrest, he would return to his ex-girlfriend Jaime’s* home. The first time he showed up with flowers, and within 3 days, assaulted Jaime in front of her children. The second time, he went to her job and assaulted her in the parking lot. John’s behavior continued to escalate, returning to Jaime’s home, leaving dead animals on her doorstep, knocking on her windows continuously throughout the night. Jaime and her children lived in paralyzing fear for over a year, terrified to walk to the bus stop every morning. Once John was in jail, he relentlessly called Jaime’s phone. Jaime fears the day that John is released and is considering leaving her family and home to move into hiding.
Sadly, this is just one example of domestic violence, a pattern of power and control which escalates over time. It is a unique crime as the offender focuses specifically on one person who they target repeatedly. Unfortunately, all too often we see patterns of escalation which, if not interrupted, result in serious injury and death. The risk is not just to victims, but to their children, to responding officers, family members, pets, and friends. Leading research by Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell indicates that for every intimate partner homicide, there is an average of nine non-lethal assaults. These are opportunities for the system to intervene and interrupt the cycle of violence. In particular, the pre-trial phase, is known to be the most dangerous time for a victim. If our system prioritizes safety, this is also the time where a victim can connect with service providers, increasing their likelihood of finding safety.
As of Jan. 1, the new bail measures will strictly regulate what pretrial conditions a judge can set for domestic violence offenses, including elimination of bail and pre-trial detention for most domestic violence misdemeanor cases. These are the cases where intervention is most critical.
Releasing an offender has the potential to embolden them to keep committing acts of violence and places the burden on the victim to find safety. Victims who experience a lack of protection by the system will be less likely to reach out for help in the future.
We have long recognized that the nature of domestic violence leaves its victims at particular risk. NYS is one of few states where judges cannot expressly consider the safety of a victim when making pretrial decisions. Other states, including New Jersey, who have enacted reforms, have also included measures to allow judges to conduct risk assessments based on the defendants’ criminal history and their charges, before deciding to release them. NYS must consider similar amendments to ensure that these reforms accomplish their noteworthy goals without endangering victims.
We have much work left to do to ensure that the criminal justice system promotes fairness, due process, and safety for all.
If you, or someone you know needs assistance please contact the National DV Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
*Name changed to protect identity
Vice President for Community Programs, Family Services