Why Bail Reform is Necessary

Police in the United States arrest innocent people every day. There is absolutely nothing illegal about that. The law does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt to arrest someone. It merely requires probable cause. In most cases, once it appears “likely” that a person has committed a crime, they are lawfully arrested by competent and professional Police Officers that are doing their job. In fact, in New York State, about half of all misdemeanor arrests result in a conviction. About 6 in 10 felony arrests result in a conviction.

Even if you are convicted, it is unlikely that your sentence will include incarceration. In 2018 about seven percent of all misdemeanor convictions resulted in jail, about 28 percent of all felony convictions resulted in any incarceration.

So if we so rarely send guilty people to jail why would we want to send the innocent there?

Bail reform has taken a hit over the last 45 days. On January 1, Judges lost the ability to set cash bail on most offenses charged in New York State. Many law enforcement officers and judges have expressed frustration since. That’s understandable, it’s change and any change can be frustrating. For police, it is human nature to believe that they got it right and their opinion should be enough to justify detention of someone they’ve arrested. For judges, the most powerful tool in their tool belt to get the attention of a person in their court, fear of incarceration, has been taken away.

Their frustration is understandable, but they can and will adapt, and we will all be better for it. Social science has revealed that the collateral impacts of incarceration on families and communities often overwhelm the benefits of debilitating the offender. Even better, we have become better than ever at rehabilitating people without incarceration. We understand addiction, the juvenile mind and criminology to a degree that was unthinkable ten years ago.

There is room for debate amongst reasonable minds. There are tweaks that will be necessary, but there is no room for the fear mongers advocating for the old ways. Those that have picked up half told tales to scare people into thinking that bail reform has allowed the unthinkable—people arrested and then re-arrested after being released under the new law.

In fact, the old law allowed the unthinkable. It allowed innocent people to sit in jail for days, months, even years. It pushed people innocent of any crime to accept plea deals and falsely admit their guilt. It created a system where the poor were jailed simply because they could not afford bail. Under the old law, the majority of people in local jails were not there because they were guilty.

Most people in our jails were simply poor, not guilty.