Nobody wants career criminals who pose a threat to society on the streets while they wait for trial. We also do not want to see a 19-year-old sit in jail for months awaiting trial for a minor crime because she is not wealthy enough to be able to afford bail.
Several states have reformed their bail systems to address the divide in how justice is administered between those with the means to afford their freedom and those with lower incomes who cannot. The changes made by New York State though took a step too far and the consequences for some has ended in tragedy.
I believe we need to ask how our justice system can be fixed in a way that is both fair and equitable to our communities and families. Ensuring a fair justice system does not have to come at the expense of our wellbeing. Together we can solve this problem. These are some commonsense solutions we can all agree on:
Judges need to be granted the discretion to consider public safety when setting bail. Currently New York is one of the few states to consider only the risk of flight when setting bail. Almost all other states consider the risk to public safety in determining whether to hold a person or not, pending trial. By giving discretion to judges we are empowering those close enough to cases to understand all the potential factors and harms.
Discovery law needs to protect victims by making sure that the defense cannot make unfair and potentially dangerous demands. Our justice system should do everything in its power to protect victims, not empower those who have victimized them. Not only is personal information about victims being handed over to those who have harmed them, these same rules will completely overwhelm the resources of prosecutors. To solve this, we need to redact identifying information of victims, and create rules that give crime labs and prosecutors a reasonable amount of time to do their jobs.
The final issue is how do we make sure people show up to court to answer for the crimes they are charged with. Cities and counties that have enacted bail reform rely on supervised release programs — in which officials stay in touch with defendants through phone calls or meetings — to ensure people show up to court. But this comes at a cost. The current legislation creates more unfunded requirements that put the cost on local property owners. This could potentially cost us millions.
Our bail system needs reform but reforms that creates justice for all of us. Judges should have the discretion to decide when someone could pose a threat to communities. We have to protect victims personal information from those accused of harming them. Albany must stop passing the cost of legislation onto the local taxpayers. Our representatives need to go back to the drawing board on bail reform to get it right and protect us before we experience more unintended consequences.
Laura Jens-Smith is the former Riverhead Town Supervisor and a Democratic candidate for N.Y. Assembly District 2. She lives in Laurel.
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