Op-Ed: New York’s bail reform disaster is about to become a major election issue

New York State governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Wang Ying | Xinhua | Getty Images

A story that’s beginning to boil over in New York is about to become a major issue in the 2020 election.

That is, unless the Democrats can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

That issue is the controversial bail reform law pushed through the New York State legislature by Governor Andrew Cuomo late last year. The law eliminates cash bail on the argument that cash bail discriminates against poorer defendants.

But critics of the law have been warning for months that eliminating bail was sure to put too many criminals with violent tendencies back on streets, even if they weren’t currently under arrest for very violent crimes.

Less than three weeks after the law went into effect, it sure looks like the naysayers were right.

In what’s becoming an almost hourly stream of depressing updates, New York’s newspapers, local TV news shows, and news sites are posting story after story about violent crimes being committed by people instantly released after arrests because of bail reform.

Making matters worse, some of the repeat offenders have been arrested for committing acts of anti-semitic assault and harassment just as New York is seeing a disturbing spike in those crimes.

Now the story has become national news, and it’s a perfect example of the kind of easy-to-understand and emotionally charged issue that can become a major factor in a national election.

Crime stories also have a rare ability to energize otherwise non-politically active Americans. Ask anyone who lived through the urban crime waves of the late 1960s through the 1980s to confirm that.

In case you need to be convinced how big a political issue this could become, remember that violent crime stories are visceral in many ways. They often involve life and death, and can be easily painted in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys” with very little gray areas in between.

Crime stories also have a rare ability to energize otherwise non-politically active Americans. Ask anyone who lived through the urban crime waves of the late 1960s through the 1980s to confirm that.

If all of this sounds like something tailor-made for President Trump to take advantage of, you’re right. While he hasn’t commented on any of the crimes committed by any of the released offenders this year, he did preview the situation in a tweet last November:

Remember that Trump has already made a wedge issue out of sanctuary city policies and crimes committed by illegal immigrants. His decision to pinpoint those issues as a candidate helped him win over Republican voters in the 2016 primaries. But Trump could find even more bipartisan support by highlighting these no bail-related crime stories, which are already affecting Democratic elected leaders and their voters.

That’s even true for New York’s Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was most responsible for the bail reform bill passing last year. He stated earlier this week that he thinks some changes should be made to the law. But he didn’t say how or when. On the much more urgent side of that fence are six Democratic state senators from suburban Long Island, who now say they’ve made changing the bail reform laws their top legislative priority for the upcoming session. That’s a dramatic about-face for a party that celebrated the bail reform law it passed just 10 months ago as a paragon of economic and racial equality.

It would be a wise move for the Democratic Party’s national leaders to take a cue from those Long Island state senators. We’re just a Trump tweet away from New York’s bail problem from becoming something the entire party and its remaining presidential candidates will have to bear.

The good news for the Democratic presidential candidates is that none of them can be personally connected to the bail reform law the way the George H.W. Bush campaign successfully saddled then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis with prison furlough programs in the infamous Willie Horton ad. But the danger to the party as a whole is real. This is an issue that’s resonating in the suburbs, where polls show Trump’s support has been weakening.

The even better news is that some Democrats running could take almost as much advantage of this issue as Trump. That is, if they want to stand out from the still-crowded primary field. If Joe Biden resumes his push to present himself as the more moderate candidate, these crimes in New York would be a perfect trend for him to decry publicly. Strongly criticizing the no bail law would also be a perfect stance for Mike Bloomberg to take based on his strong anti-crime track record as New York City’s former mayor.

Of course it won’t be that easy. The Democratic presidential candidates on the campaign trail have so far mirrored the overall leftward shift of the party. That includes Bloomberg, who previewed his official entry into the presidential race by apologizing for the NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” policy that left wing groups strongly opposed during his time in office.

In the American election game, it comes down to which candidate is the most persuasive. Right now, this bail issue is a perfect “jump ball” opportunity for any of the remaining presidential candidates to prove just how persuasive they can be. It’s likely that Trump and at least one of the Democrats running will grab hold of this issue. The only question is who will do it first.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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