As criticism grows, supporters of bail reform describe fight as a civil rights struggle

Jan 16, 2020

The fight over bail reform intensified again yesterday in Albany. Supporters of the controversial new policy rallied against efforts by Republicans and some Democrats to roll back or suspend many of its provisions.

Bail reform seen as civil rights issue in many neighborhoods

Gathered in the state capital, dozens of activists from criminal justice reform groups drew a line in the sand, chanting "Leave our bail reform intact. We will not accept rollbacks."

Bail reform has become a major flashpoint, with Republicans and some Democrats saying the law has meant some repeat offenders and potentially violent suspects being released too quickly. But activists and Democratic lawmakers speaking Wednesday pushed to recast this as a major civil rights issue. 

"Let’s talk about scare tactics," said DeAnna Hoskins with the group Just Leadership USA. "We’re always predictable for district attorneys and law enforcement. (They're) losing their power they’ve levied relentless oppression against black and brown communities."

Assemblymember Latrice Walker and activist DeAnna Hoskins cast the fight over bail reform as a fight for civil rights.
Credit Brian Mann / NCPR News

Many of the people who spoke in Albany argue the criminal justice system – including cash bail – has often been used to target black and Hispanic communities unfairly. Those who can’t afford to pay bail have languished behind bars for months, while wealthier suspects accused of the same crimes pay to go free.

Assemblymember Latrice Walker represents Brownsville in New York City, a neighborhood with one of the highest incarceration rates in New York.

"Everything it is that we’ve done in this legislation is about advancing the laws of this land and to make sure that its application is fair, it’s equitable, it’s just and it’s available to each and every citizen of these United States of America," Walker said.

GOP calling for "full repeal" of bail reforms

Many Republicans are now pushing for full repeal of the bail reforms. They’ve raised this to the top of their agenda, partnering with concerned law enforcement leaders.

"We’ve dumped into the communities many individuals with substance abuse problems and mental health problems without one penny and without one program in place," said Richard Giardino the sheriff in Fulton County, at an event recently in Warren County.

"This plan is just dumping everyone on the street without any programs available shows me that the legislature really didn’t think this out and doesn’t really care about the people they’re talking about letting out of jail."

Tony Trello from Hudson Falls, NY thinks bail reform made communities less safe.
Credit Brian Mann / NCPR News

This issue clearly has caught the attention of many voters like Tony Trello, a conservative activist from Hudson Falls, NY.

He was protesting against the bail reform law last night in Glens Falls, calling the policy “catch and release” for criminals. "They go out and reoffend five minutes after they’re hauled in. I don’t care what color you are, what race you are. There’s got to be some teeth in [the bail system]," Trullo said.

Rich vs. poor in the criminal justice system?

Bail reform advocates point out that under the old system, catch and release was already the policy if you had the money to pay to get out of jail.

"All we did was say whether you get out should not depend on whether you can afford to get out," said Democrat David Weprin who chairs the Assembly Corrections Committee. "We’ve equalized the system. If you’re a Harvey Weinstein and you can spend millions of dollars to get out on bail, that doesn’t mean the person is more dangerous or less dangerous. That just means they have money."

This is an election year and it’s clear bail reform will be a central issue, with many Democrats defending the policy as a major civil rights gain for poor communities and people of color, while many Republicans argue that it erodes public safety.