Rep. Lee Zeldin has made his call to end “cashless bail” a core tenet of his campaign for governor. And, facts be damned, he’s been wildly exaggerating the impacts of New York’s bail reform legislation that took effect in January 2020 to ramp up public fear and cynically using that fear to advance his campaign for governor.
In the week since a man accosted Zeldin during a stump speech in upstate New York, Zeldin has been hammering “cashless bail” almost nonstop on social media and in TV appearances as the root cause of rising crime in this state.
To hear Zeldin tell it, New York’s increase in crime is a direct result of the state law that now requires defendants facing most misdemeanor and some nonviolent felonies to be released without bail pending trial. Zeldin says New York is letting criminals back out on the streets to reoffend, and he says that’s exactly what they’re doing. It’s bloody mayhem out there, according to Zeldin, all because of these wrongheaded reforms adopted by left-wing Democrats, particularly the incumbent governor Zeldin seeks to unseat.
Problem is, it’s just not true. And Zeldin, a licensed attorney, knows better — or should.
First, people accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. (Beyond a reasonable doubt, by the way.) That’s a central tenet of the American criminal justice system. Zeldin passed the bar exam, and should understand that, too.
Second, bail is a cash deposit to ensure that the accused will return to court. Bail is — in theory, anyway — set when someone is believed to be a “flight risk,” i.e. someone who may not come back to face justice. The greater the risk of flight, the higher the bail. Zeldin knows this too.
Before “bail reform,” judges had unfettered discretion to require bail and to determine the amount. If the amount set was beyond the ability of the accused to pay, he or she was put behind bars until the case was ended by plea or trial. This could be weeks, months or years — all without any adjudication of guilt.
People who couldn’t “make bail” were condemned to lengthy pretrial detentions, which can result in them losing their jobs or being unable to care for loved ones — all while innocent in the eyes of the law. They were also generally poor and disproportionately Black and Latino. This is a well-documented fact and the inequity was painfully obvious to anyone paying attention.
The State Legislature attempted to address this inequity with the criminal justice reform measures passed in 2019, which took effect in January 2020 — just as the COVID-19 pandemic was about to upend society and commerce around the world.
Maybe the pandemic had something to do with nationwide rising crime rates, gun violence, increased substance abuse, overdoses, suicides and homicides. Those are multi-layered, complex problems difficult to reduce to a slogan, tweet or bumper-sticker.
But here are some facts from data tabulated and released by the state court system. Rearrest rates in criminal cases are similar regardless of whether the crime charged is “bail eligible” or not — that is, whether a judge has discretion to set bail.
In 2021 statewide, less than 10% of criminal cases led to a felony rearrest.
There was negligible difference in felony arrests among persons awaiting trial who’ve been released either without bail or after posting bail.
Actually, the data show rearrests occur in only a small number of cases and an even smaller number of violent felonies.
Facts are inconvenient things for politicians on the stump — particularly fear-mongering politicians, as Zeldin has proven himself to be. Facts don’t necessarily poll well, after all.
Enter David G. Jakubonis, 43, who attacked Zeldin while the congressman was making a speech on a flatbed truck outside a VFW post during a campaign stop in upstate Perinton.
He was charged with attempted assault in a Monroe County court and released on his own recognizance, as required for an “attempt” charge — even for an attempt of a violent felony — under the law Zeldin has vehemently criticized since its enactment.
Zeldin saw the July 21 attack as an ideal opportunity for political gain, and wasted no time using the man’s release to stoke outrage and anger over “cashless bail” and general “lawlessness” in New York thanks to the “failed policies” of the incumbent governor he is calling on voters to “fire” in November.
Jakubonis soon found himself rearrested on a federal criminal charge of assaulting a congressman.
According to the affidavit of FBI Special Agent Timothy Klapec, filed in federal court July 23, Jakubonis had been drinking whiskey on July 21 when he climbed onto the flatbed truck where Zeldin stood speaking to supporters outside the VFW.
Jakubonis told the agent he did not know who Zeldin was or that he was “a political person,” according to the affidavit. Jakubonis had “a self-defense key chain when he went up onstage,” the agent wrote. Jakubonis asked the speaker if he was disrespecting veterans, the affidavit states. He approached Zeldin, told him several times “you’re done,” grabbed the congressman’s right arm and “raised his right hand, in which he held a keychain with two sharp points facing outward, toward Congressman Zeldin,” the affidavit states.
“Congressman Zeldin grabbed Jakubonis’s left arm and Jakubonis pulled on Congressman Zeldin’s right arm,” the agent says in the affidavit. Bystanders intervened, tackling Jakubonis, who pulled Zeldin down onto the bed of the trailer, the agent wrote.
Among the bystanders who intervened was Joe Chenelly of Perinton, Republican candidate for Assembly and emcee of the event. Chenelly told reporters afterward he saw a man in a ball cap “stumble forward.” He described the man as speaking gibberish and said the only thing he uttered that was comprehensible was “you’re done.”
Chenelly, an ex-Marine and one-time high school wrestler, jumped on stage and tackled the man. After a brief struggle, Chenelly and others subdued and held him until police and sheriff’s deputies arrived to arrest him.
When he was brought to his feet, Jakubonis looked at Chenelly and said “I served in the Iraq war,” Chenelly told the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper.
Chenelly, who is the national executive director of AmVets, a veterans service organization, said he found himself moved by the man’s statement. Jakubonis obviously needed help, he said.
While Chenelly said he agrees with Zeldin’s call to eliminate “cashless bail” he also saw the event from the perspective of “a veterans advocate,” Chenelly told the newspaper. “It’s suddenly like, ‘Wait a second, this guy actually needs help, too,’” he said.
He said he thought the state judge should have been able to require “a mental health hold” to keep Jakubonis in custody.
Throughout his political career, Zeldin has held himself out as a veterans advocate like Chenelly. And as a legislator, he’s made good on that promise.
Maybe that’s why, when push literally came to shove last week in Perinton, we were surprised that Zeldin the candidate seized on the incident for political gain rather than as an opportunity to focus discussion on veterans’ mental health issues. He opted instead to use the troubled veteran Jakubonis as an example of the imaginary carnage resulting directly from “cashless bail” and the “soft-on-crime” Albany Democrats.
We’re certainly grateful the congressman was not harmed in the incident upstate.
We’re also grateful the troubled veteran wasn’t armed with a gun, or this could have turned out very differently for Zeldin, who supports relaxing New York’s gun control laws — and, ironically, says gun violence is best addressed with better mental health care services.
Jakubonis could be a poster child for a cause Zeldin has championed over his career in the State Senate and the House of Representatives: aiding troubled veterans returning from overseas deployment— men and women for whom Zeldin previously vowed deep and sincere support.
Jakubonis, like Zeldin, did a tour of duty in Iraq. According to news reports: He received a medical discharge. After he returned home, his wife died, leaving him to care for their young twins. He couldn’t find work. He drank heavily. He lost custody of his children to his brother.
Of course, none of this personal history is an excuse for breaking the law, and we don’t advocate excusing the actions we saw on video recordings of the events in Perinton.
It’s telling that Zeldin failed to address the attacker’s mental status as a veteran in need of assistance until July 28, after Jakubonis’ pretrial detention hearing in federal court, when Zeldin was asked about it by a reporter during a news conference. And then he said releasing Jakubonis was a disservice given the apparent help he needed.
Zeldin’s response to this incident and his posturing in the days that followed reveal a candidate for whom personal political ambition comes before addressing serious issues and sound policymaking. Unfortunately, Zeldin’s true priorities come as no surprise to anyone who’s been observing his pandering behavior over the past several years. This past week has simply brought them into crisp focus.
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