Opinion: Safety means investments, not oppression

The governor’s proposal to weaken bail reform will harm our communities. We can’t accept it.

State Sen. Julia Salazar (center) and Assembly Member Latrice Walker (right) at a rally defending bail reform at the State Capitol in March 2022.

State Sen. Julia Salazar (center) and Assembly Member Latrice Walker (right) at a rally defending bail reform at the State Capitol in March 2022. Center for Community Alternatives

Everyone has a right to be safe. We represent districts impacted by both crime and mass incarceration. We, ourselves, are survivors of violence. As lawmakers, we do not treat this subject lightly. That is why both houses of the Legislature included substantial investments in community safety in our budget proposals and why we are fighting for the final budget to go further. One proposal we cannot accept: Changes to weaken bail reform and subject more Black, brown and working-class New Yorkers to the well-documented abuses at Rikers Island and other local jails

We understand that Gov. Kathy Hochul has decided, in spite of all of the state’s many challenges, this expansion of mass incarceration is her top priority, even reportedly saying that she won’t negotiate the rest of the budget until we agree to her plan. As a separate branch of government, we have a duty to our constituents to reject it, all the same.

Rolling back bail reform will not make us safer. On the contrary, the data is clear that jailing more Black, brown and poor people destabilizes families and communities and makes everyone less safe. Cycling people through traumatic jails causes them to lose their jobs, apartments, and even custody of their children, miss out on medical routines, and more, which increases the likelihood of rearrest. And that’s just in the short-term. Longer-term, this double standard of justice deepens the divides in our society – rich and poor, Black, brown and white, and hope and despair – that create the conditions in which violence is most likely to occur.  

In her State of the State Address, Gov. Kathy Hochul herself acknowledged that pretrial reform has not led to a rise in crime. This fact was reiterated by her administration in the joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly Codes, Judiciary and Corrections committee. The data show that bail reform has succeeded in reducing the injustice of pretrial incarceration and upholding public safety. In fact, bail reform has reduced recidivism and increased court appearance rates.

None of this means we, as legislators, can sit on our hands and do nothing. But a politicized focus on bail reform distracts from real solutions for community safety. New York must take an evidence-based approach to address the root causes of crime by investing in safe and affordable housing, mental health services, employment opportunities, and a robust and inclusive safety net. We also need to scale up community-based, public health-centered violence intervention programs, which data show do a better job of preventing and decreasing violence. The governor’s budget takes steps in the right direction on some of these fronts, but this moment calls for bold action.

That means enacting long-overdue policies like the Housing Access Voucher Program, which will help to end homelessness, and the Good Cause Eviction bill to prevent arbitrary evictions. It means fully funding supportive and re-entry housing, along with non-residential community-based mental health resources. It means adopting the Unemployment Bridge Program – a critical and commonsense expansion of the safety net to include workers excluded from the current program. It means funding the MTA to prevent fare hikes, make buses free and guarantee a maximum of six-minute wait times to promote the usage of public transit and prevent people from having to wait around on empty platforms, where they may be at greater risk. It means finally passing the Fair Access to Victim Compensation bill so Black and brown crime survivors can get crucial material support to help them heal and stay safe – and to stop the cycles of violence that afflict our communities. It means passing Clean Slate so that all New Yorkers can access jobs, housing and education. 

Arrests and incarceration happen after acts of violence or other crimes have already occurred. Instead of a reactive strategy, we are committed to a proactive one. When people and families have basic life necessities – from safe and stable housing to jobs and economic opportunity – they are not put into the desperate life circumstances that make violence more likely to occur. The safest communities are those with the most resources, not the highest rates of incarceration. We see that within our own districts.

Gov. Hochul’s bail proposal would upend decades of settled law, not just the 2019 reforms, and invite greater judicial bias, leading to more Black, brown, and poor people in jail pretrial. In short, it would eliminate the longstanding legal standard – that bail or other conditions of release before trial be set only when they are needed to ensure a person makes all their court dates – which wasn’t even controversial until some political actors decided to make it a punching bag.

The “least restrictive conditions” standard does nothing more than prevent judges from using bail as a way to sentence people to jail without a conviction. Bail was never supposed to be punishment. Bail is intended as a mechanism to ensure people fulfill their obligations to the court and answer the charges against them. That’s been the standard in New York since the Civil Rights Era.

We can’t follow Gov. Hochul down the path of expanding mass jailing, mass inequality and mass desperation. We cannot ignore the humanitarian crisis in our jails, where the death rate reached record levels last year, and condemn more people there to be traumatized, to be physically and emotionally scarred for life. That would be a victory for the racist politics of mass incarceration – more people, families and communities destabilized, more wrongful convictions, more people losing their housing, their jobs, and custody of their children. 

We are working with our colleagues in the Legislature for a budget that will truly make our communities safer and stronger. And if Gov. Hochul chooses to delay the budget and keep us in Albany as part of her push to expand mass incarceration, we’ll be ready with extra changes of clothing, plenty of healthy snacks, and enough fire in our bellies to keep up the fight for as long as it takes.

Julia Salazar is a state senator representing Bushwick, Williamsburg, Cypress Hills, and parts of Ridgewood and East New York, and the chair of the Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections. Latrice Walker is an Assembly member representing Brownsville and Ocean Hill who sponsored the 2019 bail reform bill in the Assembly.

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