People protest outside of New York state governor Kathy Hochul's...

People protest outside of New York state governor Kathy Hochul's New York City office, urging her to protect bail reform and close Rikers Island prison in New York, New York, USA, 28 February 2023. Hochul on 01 February released a budget proposal that has a minor rollback of the state's controversial 2019 bail reform law. Protests against New York state bail reform, USA - 28 Feb 2023 Credit: /SARAH YENESEL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

ALBANY — A new study released Wednesday found the state’s landmark “bail reform law” — eliminating bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies — actually reduced recidivism overall in New York City.

Researchers from John Jay College said the rate of offenders being released and later arrested again on new charges has declined since the bail law was overhauled in 2019.

The most important “fundamental take-away” is “overall, we saw a decrease in recidivism for those cases made bail-ineligible by the reform,” said Rene Ropac, a John Jay senior research associate and co-author of the study with Michael Rempel, director of John Jay’s Data Collaborative for Justice.

They found the two-year “rearrest” rate for those released because of bail reform was 44%, compared with 50% for those facing similar charges and criminal histories before the law was changed. This was especially true for low-level offenses and people with no prior criminal history.

For more serious cases for which bail remained an option for judges before and after the 2019 overhaul, John Jay said bail reform had no real effect on rearrests.

But the study does cite exceptions: Those with what the authors called “substantial criminal histories.”

These are defined as those with pending criminal cases or prior arrests for a violent felony who later were arrested and released because the new charge is no longer subject to bail.

In these instances, which represent roughly 10% of cases, rearrest rates were higher after bail reform.

In another wrinkle, Ropac and Rempel said the numbers show a set of amendments enacted in 2020 proved beneficial.

Those amendments restored bail as an option for domestic violence charges involving choking, burglary in the living space of a dwelling and crimes in which a person or property was harmed.

After being restored to “bail eligible,” recidivism declined in these cases, researchers said.

The study is important because it is perhaps the first to attempt an “apples to apples” comparison of rearrest data before and after the 2019 overhaul. Previous reports didn’t have historical bench marks for comparison.

The study was limited to New York City because it had much ampler pre-2019 data than jurisdictions in the rest of the state, Rempel said.

Bail reform has become a tinderbox political issue. Critics said the law has allowed too many violent suspects to be released. Supporters of the reform note crime increased in many American cities during the last few years — even in states that didn’t change bail laws.

Still, Republicans used the issue effectively in the 2021 and 2022 elections and Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, is proposing another significant amendment. She wants to eliminate a provision that says judges should use the “least restrictive option” for ensuring a defendant returns for a court date.

But other Democrats said that could undermine the whole point of the 2019 reform — which was to release people with low-level charges while their cases played out instead of being stuck in jails such as Rikers Island because they couldn’t post a small bail.

Taking up that point, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said the John Jay report shows “not only has recidivism dropped, you’re not keeping people in jails where their entire lives are disrupted.” She said the public doesn’t always understand judges have power to set bail for violent and repeat offenders.

Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, a Niagara County Republican, said he hadn’t seen the report, but said prosecutors and the public understand crime and recidivism that Republicans blame on the bail law is real. He said judges should have more discretion to assess bail.

With Michael Gormley

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