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OpinionCommentary

Don't be scared of fearmongering over bail reform

Nassau County jail in East Meadow in 2016.

Nassau County jail in East Meadow in 2016. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A desperately needed and long-overdue bail reform bill passed the State Legislature this year, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed it into law. Now, some prosecutors with the District Attorneys Association of New York are employing a campaign of fear to either change the law or delay its implementation, and keep more people in jail to await trial.

Let’s be clear: Despite the fearmongering, this reform is necessary.

Our organization, New Hour for Women and Children-Long Island, works in jails and knows their realities. This year, we worked with more than 1,000 women jailed in Suffolk County, offering support for them and their children.

Ending money bail for people accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies means more fairness and more safety for Long Islanders. Between Nassau and Suffolk counties, nearly 2,400  people languish behind bars each day. More than 70 percent are incarcerated pretrial, most on bail they cannot afford. Money bail creates a two-tiered system of justice: People who can afford bail return to their families and jobs, while people who cannot are locked up.

Being in jail obliterates the possibility of equal justice. People in jail are far more likely to plead guilty, and most who do are never sentenced to prison. In other words, they are pleading guilty, regardless of guilt or innocence, just to go home. This should shock anyone who believes in fair and equal justice. Perhaps the most tragic bail injustice was the case of Kalief Browder, who spent three years on Rikers Island, including two years in solitary confinement, because he was unable to afford bail on a charge of stealing a backpack. After his release, he hanged himself. Most bail injustices don’t reach that horrifying level, but every such case is unfair and unnecessary.

Contrary to the misleading hypotheticals promoted by prosecutors, reducing pretrial jailing actually improves public safety because incarceration aggravates many of the root drivers of harm and crime: poverty, trauma, housing instability, unmet needs for mental and physical health, and untreated substance use disorder.

Our experience shows that targeted, individualized programs, not punishment, are what keep our communities safe. The women who work with us after release have only a 2% likelihood of being rearrested, compared to a 65% overall rearrest rate in Long Island’s jails. Recognizing that and working with New Hour, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department has taken groundbreaking steps: training qualified officers and providing rehabilitative prerelease planning. In fact, along with the sheriff’s office, we are working to arrange for prerelease planning for those being released on their own recognizance (ROR) from court, starting Jan 1.

Despite this good work, jail is not a cost-efficient place to provide services desperately needed by our communities. Long Islanders suffer from lack of supportive and affordable housing and health care, including drug treatment and mental health services, while millions of taxpayer dollars are spent on our local jails.

As we work to successfully implement bail reform on Long Island, we must all understand the systemic challenges that lead people to incarceration. Often, the underlying pathways to crime begin with families in crisis. So, it’s urgent that our communities be ready not just to limit money bail, but to support needed, lifesaving treatment programs as part of the solution.

Serena Liguori is executive director of the nonprofit organization New Hour for Women and Children — Long Island in Brentwood.

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