Crime and Safety

Albany District Attorney David Soares: NY bail laws are a failure

It’s a speech that Albany refused to listen to—or heed.

David Soares is the Albany County District Attorney, African American and Democrat. However, he also vehemently criticizes the “reforms” of criminal justice passed by the Legislature, saying that they made the state less safe and were the victims of black residents. He was scheduled to speak at a State Senate hearing on crime, but was not invited because lawmakers didn’t like the optics of criticism from someone they couldn’t dismiss as “white supremacist” or a Republican.

The remarks were eventually read into the minutes by someone else and quickly ignored. So, according to Soares himself, what went wrong in New York and what needs to be done. Will Albany continue to ignore the issue?

Thank you for inviting me here to testify about public safety in New York State.

I’m going to start with what you’ve all heard; the reforms introduced in 2017 and 2019, while well-intentioned and brought about important changes, have caused enormous damage to public safety.

What you may not have heard before is the hard truth: these reforms had the most devastating impact on black and brown communities. If you take an honest look at the data—the rise in crime, the number of victims of those crimes, and the location of the most violent crimes—the connection is pretty clear.

Set the record straight

I will set the scene by looking at our practice before the reforms. For statistical purposes, I will distinguish between a large metropolitan area and a medium-sized upstate district.

Albany District Attorney David Soares: NY bail laws are a failure
An NYPD officer investigates a shooting in Manhattan on February 18, 2023.
Christopher Sadowski

One area that received a lot of attention before the reforms was the percentage of people who were held on bail after arrest but before sentencing. Let’s face it: it was always not enough, even before the pledge reform. In Albany County, 40% of the beds in the correctional facility were occupied by convicts and defendants awaiting trial for felonies.

One 2019 study of prisoners in Queens County found that 95% of defendants in pre-trial detention were held for felonies and 41% for violent crimes.

The notion that many people were being held on minor charges with little bail has always been completely false. In fact, the same study in Queens found that defendants held solely because of their inability to post bail on misdemeanor charges averaged more than five felonious arrests, seven misdemeanor arrests, seven misdemeanor convictions, and Almost three times they didn’t show up.

At some point, repeated violations of the law and disrespect for process must be taken with the degree of seriousness they deserve.

When bail reform went into effect just over three years ago, thousands of defendants were released from local jails. In fact, some judges have actually launched a “soft launch” if you will, releasing some defendants in November 2019 in anticipation of new laws, apparently to avoid a mass release of thousands of prisoners in one day – and possibly the bad press that will garner.

Lock under lock

Among those abruptly released were hundreds of accused drug dealers, car thieves, shoplifters, burglars, and robbers across the state.

Law enforcement officials have often been told that the suspension of services during the overlapping coronavirus pandemic was the driving force behind the increase in crime in 2020. While this was undoubtedly one of the factors, it is not a holistic explanation for the decline in public safety. .

In fact, we have a short period of time to analyze what happened after the reforms, but before COVID. This will be the first 2 ¹/₂ months of 2020. Crime had already begun to rise — significantly — by the time the coronavirus hit.

Soares called the criminal justice reforms passed by the State Legislature "extremely dangerous to public safety."
Soares called the criminal justice reforms passed by the state legislature “extremely harmful to public safety”.
Hans Pennink

In New York City alone, crime rose by 20%, ending a 27-year period of yearly decline in crime. Crime was on the rise everywhere. Burglary up 26.5%; robberies up to 33.9%; grand theft increased by 15.8%; car theft increased by 68%; petty theft increased by 19%.

What a coincidence that each of these crimes became a non-bailable crime in 2020, meaning that all those previously held on bail on these charges were released by January 1, 2020. If you deny that the release of hundreds of car thieves, robbers, drug dealers, and petty thieves had an obvious impact on crime in New York, you deny common sense.

You don’t have to be a meteorologist to know which way the wind is blowing.

In addition, the new law introduced a new form of exemption: “non-monetary exemption”. This allows judges to release a defendant without bail, but allows them to impose certain conditions, such as requiring the defendant to appear at a pre-trial facility, seek employment, or wear an ankle bracelet. These conditions could only be imposed if the court found that the defendant might have absconded.

This condition of release was designed to replace bail while imposing some restrictions on the defendant that should have had a greater impact than release on bail. They were imposed, in essence, on the defendants, for whom bail would have been set under the old law. Had they had previous convictions or pending cases, it would be even more likely that the judge would have set bail under the old law.

Blood splatter on the sidewalk after a shooting in Manhattan on February 12, 2023.
Blood splatter on the sidewalk after the shooting in Manhattan on February 12, 2023.
Matthew McDermott

If we use the United Judicial System’s pre-trial data dashboard and look at the defendants included in the non-pecuniary release program, we see the following:

  • Between January 1, 2020 and June 30 and 22, 39.6% of defendants placed in NMR were re-arrested while their case was pending.
  • For those defendants placed in the NMR who had previous convictions or pending cases (79% of the total), the re-arrest rate was 44.6%.
  • For defendants placed in the NMR on commercial burglary charges, the re-arrest rate was 62%. For burglaries, it amounted to 47%. For theft on an especially large scale, it amounted to 56%. For third-degree robbery, it was 56%. For petty theft, it was 67%.

Doomed to repeat

However, even these figures do not take into account the full scale of recidivism. They do not take into account rearrests between a guilty plea and sentencing, which can take weeks or months. They only count one rearrest, so if a defendant is rearrested four times while on bail, that only counts as one arrest in the Department of Criminal Justice statistics. The implicit assumption in all this that a career criminal is arrested every time he commits a crime is naive to say the least.

In the mind of someone who is determined to break the law, the possibility of repeating offenses within a short period of time with minimal consequences serves only as an incentive for such behavior.

In terms of rewarding remedial behavior, the impact of Raise the Age has been comparatively detrimental to public safety. Since the implementation of Raise the Age in Albany County, there have been approximately 312 Raise the Age cases involving a total of 230 defendants. I say “approximately” because these numbers can change from day to day.

Thirty-four percent of these defendants were arrested more than once; 19% percent of those re-arrested were detained as minors. Of those rearrested, 62% were rearrested for violent crimes.

But what do these numbers mean? These numbers mean that taking a case to family court often results in a defendant returning to the very community that led them down this path in the first place. Cases of violence must remain in the teenage part to prevent further harm to society.

Completely wrong

Returning to the bail reform law, we also need to pay attention to the literal wording of the law, in particular the words “least restrictive.” These two words from the Bail Repeal Act are specifically referred to by judges when deciding on bail. This standard often results in a clearly dangerous person returning to the same environment and community in which they committed their crimes. It does not help either society or the offender.

In conclusion, I want to say that, despite the wild misconceptions, generalizations and statements of activists about the intentions of prosecutors, our goal is not to jail as many people as possible and for as long as possible.

The decade and a half period between the Rockefeller Reforms and the 2020 Provisional Bail Reform reflects the biggest public safety advances in New York State history. Prosecutors involved in intelligence-driven investigations and prosecutions took a tough approach to crime and a smart approach to distraction, ushering in an era of prison closures across New York State.

We understand the complex nature of the social determinants of crime and agree that they must also be prioritized.

However, pretending that the prosecution and immobilization of criminals is not an important part of public safety is akin to pretending that the Earth is flat.

Just because your echo chamber repeats it doesn’t make it true.

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