Some states have taken steps in recent years to close the gap between what criminal justice advocates claim are two tiers of the justice system: one where people can effectively buy themselves out of police custody and another where those arrested for low-level offenses are stuck in jail because they lack the financial means to bond themselves out.
Many critics say the bail system punishes people for being unable to pay and leaves defendants in a cycle of debt.
Under most bail-reform law, criminal courts are prohibited from setting cash bail in most misdemeanor cases and some non-violent felony cases. States such as New York, California and New Jersey have taken steps to ban the practice, while smaller jurisdictions are also adopting similar reforms.
New York’s recently enacted bail law has been steeped in controversy since it went into effect Jan. 1. Critics have cited the law for the release of criminals who would otherwise be held in police custody on bail but re-offended instead.
One offender, Tiffany Harris, was arrested in early January on suspicion of punching a woman in the face unprovoked after she was released from police custody for another offense without bail.
In another case, a New York City subway thief thanked Democrats for guaranteeing his release despite hundreds of previous arrests.
Aerial view of Rikers Island, New York’s City main jail complex.
“Bail reform, it’s lit!” Charles Barry said as he was being transferred by police to Manhattan Central Booking. «It’s the Democrats! The Democrats know me and the Republicans fear me. You can’t touch me! I can’t be stopped!”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has defended the law, calling it an «ongoing process.»
«We need to respond to the facts but not the politics, we need to act on information and not hyperbole,» he said in January.
The New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Act took effect in 2017 and essentially overhauled the state’s bail system by eliminating cash bail.
A 2019 report from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts concluded that those released under the new law were no more likely to commit a crime while awaiting trial than those released under the prior system.
Meanwhile, the state’s jail population has decreased while defendants continue to make their court appearances.
“Concerns about a possible spike in crime and failures to appear did not materialize,” the report says, according to NorthJersey.com.
The state’s landmark voter referendum to end cash bail has been put on hold after the bail industry successfully launched a referendum drive to let voters decide the issue again in November, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles. California voters will decide the fate of a bail reform referendum in November.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 10 in 2018 to end cash bail for most suspects accused of nonviolent felonies, which was slated to go into effect last year. The bill would give judges greater power to decide who should remain in jail until trial and would eliminate cash bail.
The bail industry argues the legislation would release violent criminals onto the streets.
Alaska joined the national trend of enacting bail reform in 2018, only for it to be rolled back months later by Republican Gov. Michael Dunleavy.
Senate Bill 91 gave the state the ability to create a tool to assess a criminal suspect’s risk of whether or not they will show up to court or will commit a crime while out on bail.
In July 2019, Dunleavy signed into law House Bill 49, which effectively repealed the Senate legislation.