We have only just begun to see the benefits of New York’s bail reform law, yet we know that it is working. Thousands of people are returning to their families and communities as their case moves forward. These same people are attending the legal proceedings that will either confirm their innocence, or assess their guilt. Is this not how the system is supposed to work? According to what I had always been told about our Constitutional rights, it is.
Nonetheless, since January, I’ve seen a steady parade of law enforcement claiming that I am less safe because poor people and people of color are now able to go home until their case is resolved. None of them seems able to explain why I am in more danger now than under the old system, when those with enough money could buy their pretrial freedom and, in theory, have performed the same acts. Are they saying poor arrestees are more violent? Are they saying I have nothing to fear from an arrestee who could scrape up $5,000 on short notice, and everything to fear from one who could not? This logic is offensive.
How people get treated by the criminal legal system is personal for me. I have never been arrested, but my mother once was, for alcohol use that endangered my teenage brother. If you traced my mom’s behavior back to the root, you would see deep depression and disconnection from her family. I am grateful to say that I was able to take her home directly from the police station the same night she was arrested, and she was not subjected to unaffordable bail, but released pretrial. My mother, thankfully, spent a solid six months at home, before she had to report to the jail term she was ultimately sentenced to.
With that precious time as her case was pending, Mom got help. She stopped drinking, received mental health treatment, and found a lawyer. She endangered no one. She was able to keep her job, where she worked tirelessly. When she was ultimately convicted and sentenced, her high performance led her supervisor to grant her work-release during her period of incarceration so that she was able to continue receiving a paycheck during her incarceration, and return home to a job. She did not lose her home. As a divorced mother who paid monthly child support, she did not lose already-limited custody of her children. Our family had time to heal, and when she left to serve her time, my mom’s wounded life was already pieced back together. My siblings and I visited her in jail, eagerly, every other Sunday. We were only allowed one hug per visit, but we made up the deficit as much as we could when she got out.
When we last talked about this time in our lives, my mother told me, “I arrived [to jail] terrified but pretty much a whole person, with my ducks in a row as much as they could be.” She said that because she was home pre-sentencing, she had been able to make changes in her life, and decide how to make them, rather than deteriorating further in a jail cell. This pretrial liberty is what she credits for maintaining her recovery from alcohol abuse in all of the years since.
I have read about pretrial incarceration under New York’s old bail system. The stories are filled with the brutality and suffering people endure in jail while they wait for a chance to be heard in court. It is brutal to remove people from their families and subject them to the cruel punishment of incarceration while they are supposedly “presumed innocent.” The removal itself is an act of violence – and should be avoided as much as possible.
I live in a majority Black neighborhood in Brooklyn. We have a constant police presence—noticeable compared to the much Whiter neighborhood I used to live in. An enormous mobile command center is parked permanently outside my neighbor’s building. And we know that police disproportionately arrest people of color for so-called “crimes” as small as not paying for the subway, or jaywalking. In the case of the subway, it was reported last year that one commander explicitly told his subordinates to target and arrest Black and Latinx people. Mass arrest and criminalization is happening to my neighbors for no reason besides the color of their skin. Given this, how can I not rejoice when they are allowed to come home pretrial, sort out their defense, keep their jobs, and stay connected with their families because of the new bail law?
I feel safe when I live in a place where I can say hello to the same people day after day on my walk to the train or at the grocery store. I feel at risk when I can’t. If you take my neighbors away for weeks or months, if they lose their jobs, their homes, and become disconnected from their families, and if at the end of the day, whether found guilty or innocent, were given no chance to prepare for a departure from their lives—the community becomes precarious.
Finally, with the outbreak of Coronavirus, it is more important than ever to protect New Yorkers through bail reform. The more we jail legally innocent individuals, the more likely we are to create congested facilities and spread the virus. Then, these legally innocent individuals will return home, bringing the virus to their communities and loved ones. Our current bail laws make it so that individuals await their trial at home, protecting both people in the facilities and communities.
Acts of violence happen, and no one can be guaranteed complete safety. But we know that access to employment, housing, mental health and substance use treatment are what actually deliver safety – not jail. The new bail law already allows for judges to set bail in cases involving accusations of violent crimes. And for everyone else, anything that keeps people home and part of the mesh of community, as the new bail law does, is a chance for people to make positive change in an environment that actually nurtures them. We’re all better at looking out for each other, and keeping each other safe, when that happens.
Chris Taylor works in radio and is a resident of Bed Stuy.