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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Bail reforms will generate needless fear on Long Island

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On Jan. 1, a change in New York law will mean most individuals charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies will forgo bail and be released. Although it’s hard to predict a jail population 10 weeks in advance, officials from Suffolk and Nassau say at least 300 people in each county could be released. 

The change is almost entirely positive, although the state may tinker with which offenses could allow for bail. But for the most part, people accused of low-level crimes like small-scale drug sales or drunk driving are not in jail because they are so dangerous they face a huge bail. They are there because they are too poor to raise a small bail.

And letting people of means go free while poor people accused of the same crimes remain imprisoned is wrong.

We can confidently predict:

  • Crime rates, which have plummeted over the past three decades in New York City even as cashless bail grew from 50 percent of all cases to 76 percent, will not spike.  In Washington, D.C., 94 percent of all people arrested are released without bail, 88% made every court appearance and just 2% were arrested for a violent crime.
  • Someone released on Long Island who would have been confined under the old law will commit a heinous crime, just as people out on bail sometimes do.  
  • Some politicians and law-enforcement leaders will use the change in law to try to terrify residents, with some success.

Almost 25 years ago, then-Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon wanted to know why  crime in his county was so comparatively rare. And why, despite crime rates in 1994 hitting their lowest levels in 20 years, so many residents believed they and their loved ones would be lucky to make it through the month without being shot or robbed.

So Dillon called on Harvey Kushner, the chairman of Long Island University's C.W. Post Campus criminal justice department.

In an interview, Kushner, still running the department, said, “There was this perception, because we had a few major and very famous crimes like Colin Ferguson and [Joel] David Rifkin and Joey Buttafuoco, that people couldn’t leave the house. But we did a study, of Long Island and other communities contiguous to big cities, and we found Nassau and Suffolk really did have comparatively low crime rates, and there were some clear reasons.”

The areas Kushner studied along with Long Island were suburbs of Los Angeles, Miami, Detroit and Dallas. Each had crime rates significantly higher than Long Island. What set Long Island apart was societal factors: an older, richer population with a high prevalence of two-parent families, all factors that correlate with low crime.

And as low as crime rates were on Long Island in 1994, they’ve plummeted another 30 percent since. Yet many Long Islanders remain convinced that danger lurks around every cul-de-sac and condo complex. This is true nationally too, as a recent Pew Research center study pointed out: Crime nationally dropped about 70 percent from 1993 to 2018, but six out of 10 Amercans believe it has increased.

Kushner guesses that the sense that crime is rampant comes largely from a 24-hour news culture and smartphones. That’s part of it, but this is also a society of New York City émigrés, raised fearing crime, who may never let go of it and whose politicians don't want them to.

Cashless bail won’t make the Island more dangerous. People need to accept that, in order to enjoy the serenity and gratitude that living in one of the safest communities in the nation ought to provide.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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