Spike in Crime Inflames Debate Over Bail Law in New York

New York City’s police commissioner on Tuesday blamed the state’s new bail law for a sharp rise last month in serious crimes, warning again that the law allows violent criminals to go free and risks eroding the city’s historic improvements in public safety.

But supporters of the law responded that it was far too early to draw any conclusions about its impact, saying that the data was being framed in politically irresponsible ways.

Precipitous increases in crimes like robberies, shootings and auto thefts drove a 16.9 percent increase in overall crime last month compared to January 2019, according to police data.

At the same time, the number of murders was down from 29 to 23, and the number of rapes was dropped.

Law enforcement experts say crime statistics can rise or fall in any given month for numerous reasons and explain that it is far more important to track trends over longer periods of time.

But the police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, maintained that the new bail law, which was approved by the Legislature last year and went into effect on Jan. 1, was clearly responsible for the spike.

“I stand by that,” Commissioner Shea said at a news conference, referring to an opinion piece that he wrote in The New York Times last week, “New York’s New Bail Laws Harm Public Safety.

He said the new law forces judges to release people even if they are believed to pose a risk to others.

“I think that, you know, with the passing of the new law, we saw a pretty, pretty, pretty dramatic increase in the people that were let out of Rikers in accordance with the law and that’s something that we will deal with,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged that the city had seen effects “emanating from this law for months,” suggesting that the impact of the bail law started before Jan. 1. The courts began following the new guidelines in November to avoid a last minute crush of people who were released from jail.

Neither the mayor nor the commissioner offered data or analysis to support their contention that the law was behind the increase.

Bail was originally intended as a tool to ensure that defendants showed up for court appointments. But supporters of the changes to New York’s law said the system had ended up penalizing people who were unable to afford bail, forcing them to rely on expensive bail bonds or remain behind bars while their cases moved through the courts.

The new law is intended to ensure that most people arrested on criminal charges are free while their cases are pending. Judges are no longer allowed to set bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, including stalking, assault without serious injury, burglary, many drug offenses and some kinds of arson and robbery.

Opponents have pointed to a string of crimes committed by people who were released before trial as anecdotal evidence that the law needs to be rolled back. But on Tuesday, supporters of the law, including public defender organizations and civil liberties groups, lashed out at the mayor and police commissioner.

Nicole Triplett, policy counsel of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the police commissioner and mayor were “manipulating statistics to fit their misguided narrative that giving low-income New Yorkers the same privileges as wealthier people is somehow linked to crime.”

“For the past two decades, New York City has reduced both its jail population and the use of cash bail, resulting in some of the lowest crime rates we have ever seen,” she said. “We cannot let the distortions, falsehoods and purposeful fear-mongering that has spread over the past few weeks discredit these long-overdue changes.”

The police recorded a total of 7,215 serious crimes in January, compared to 8,437 in January 2019.

The Police Department’s chief statistician, Chief Michael LiPetri, did not mention the bail law when he discussed the primary drivers behind increases in assaults, shootings, robberies and car thefts in January.

One of the largest increases was in robberies, which rose to 1,290 last month from 943 in January 2019, an increase of nearly 37 percent, according to police records.

Chief LiPetri said the increase was being driven by teenagers who have been robbing other teenagers of electronic devices in greater numbers than before. People younger than 18 committed 26 percent of robberies, he said.

He said 21 of the 67 shootings last month involved people who were recently released from jail or prison and were on probation or parole — the highest rate recorded since 2003, when the city began recording the data.

In Albany, the Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, defended the law against the growing calls from prosecutors and police chiefs to scale it back.

Asked about the city’s objections, Mr. Heastie said he did not know “how much data” anyone could have in such a brief time period.

“You’ve probably had thousands of people who have probably been arrested,” he said. “But the only stories that seem to be written are ones that some people blame the bail law.”

However, he added that there were instances when “the system could have done a better job in keeping someone who they feel shouldn’t have been back out on the streets.”

Some lawmakers have suggested that the bail law be revisited as part of negotiations over the state budget, which is due by April 1. But Mr. Heastie said he didn’t want to commit to that time frame, or any other, for evaluating the new law. He said that the changes in bail law still have the strong support of the Democratic majority.

“When you ask for these type of revisions you have to have concrete data, concrete information, not just sensationalized or leaked stories to the newspapers,” he said.

He complained that media is not covering stories about those helped by the law, “people who have gone through the system, been able to go back to work, were able — while they wait for their day in court — to not have their family lives disrupted.”

Leave a Reply