Bail reform law frees inmates accused of misdemeanor, nonviolent felonies takes effect

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With the start of the new year comes the start of new laws regarding the criminal justice system.

Sweeping criminal justice reform that passed in Albany back in April 2019 went into effect Jan. 1. This includes changes to the bail system.

Starting now, anyone charged with a misdemeanor or most non-violent felonies cannot be held on cash bail, and will instead be issued appearance tickets.

“I’ll be one of the first DAs to tell you reforms were necessary, and I think it's fair," says Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark.

Alice Fontier, of the Bronx Defenders, also welcomes the change.

"All of the evidence, the data from the years of the cash bail system demonstrates that what happens is that poor people stay in jail and people with money don't," Fontier says.

As of Dec. 28, 50 to 60 pre-trial detainees were awaiting release on Jan. 1 under the new law, according to the city Department of Corrections. But in the Bronx, any eligible defendants have already been released.

"DA Clark has over the last several months not been asking for money bail on most misdemeanors," Fontier says.

"My thinking was if it's a case where we're not seeking a jail sentence, then we shouldn't be asking for bail,” DA Clark says.

But there's growing opposition to the Bail Elimination Act. One common argument is without bail, what will keep a defendant from committing another crime after being released?

"That's one of the parts of the law that I think they may have to tweak at some point because you can't empower people to know that. ‘Well they can't hold me on bail, so let me continue to go out and commit the same type of crimes.’ We don't want that," says DA Clark says.

While the Bail Elimination Act has received the most attention, there's another part of the state's criminal justice reforms that could have the most impact. With the changes to “discovery laws,” prosecutors now have to turn over everything within 15 days of arraignment, rather than waiting until right before the trial started.

"The timing is too short, like an autopsy takes longer than 15 days sometimes. If you have a case with DNA, DNA takes way longer than 15 days," Clark says.

According to the district attorney, any new evidence gathered after 15 days must be handed over immediately.

The New York City Defenders released a joint statement Wednesday that read in part: "Prosecutors will no longer have the power of information and will instead have to share with the people they charge what the evidence is in their cases so that they can meaningfully defend themselves and make informed decisions."

Clark says her staff is ready to handle the changes, but is unsure how sustainable it is. She's also concerned about the type of information she has to turn over.

"Victims and witnesses and their information, which we were at least able to hold the identity or at least the addresses or whatever, because we wanted to make sure they remained safe," Clark says.

Clark says she can ask for a protective order to keep that information redacted, as her office has done in the past. However, the worry is this could scare people away from helping and cooperating with investigations.

“So we're hoping that people are still courageous enough to report crimes and to know that between the police department and my office, we are going to make sure to the best of our abilities that they remain safe," Clark says.

Clark adds that she also wants the public to be informed. She plans to hold events across the borough this month, including a town hall at the Bronx Supreme Court on Jan. 21 to educate the public on what the changes are, and what they need to know.

 

 

 

 

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