Posted January 16, 2020
We have been horrified by the recent rise of anti-Semitic attacks against Orthodox Jews in Crown Heights, Monsey and elsewhere. Central has shown our support and solidarity through security advice, financial donations and presence at the recent No Hate No Fear rally. We will continue to fight for all Jews against this alarming rise of anti-Semtism coming from many directions, through education, coalition building and advocacy.
In times of crisis, we must especially guard ourselves from allowing simplistic answers and fear to drive our responses. Recent articles have linked recent bail reform work to the threat against Jews. This is not based on data, but anecdotal evidence that preys upon our fears.
What is needed now, more than ever, is for us to build bridges with other communities across lines of race and class. Just as we fight hatred targeting Jews, we also strive to make our city and state more just and more equitable for all New Yorkers.
On January 1 of this year, a number of sweeping criminal law reforms for which our congregation advocated took effect in New York. This historic legislation eliminated money bail and pretrial detention for nearly all people accused of most misdemeanor and nonviolent felonies, required prosecutors to disclose more evidence much earlier to the defense, and made other important changes.
Central was proud to join with the coalition of faith leaders, elected officials, and activists who championed and made possible these ground-breaking reforms. They were carefully designed to ensure that tens of thousands of men and women who have not been convicted of any crime will not languish in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. Every criminal law expert – judges, prosecutors, and defense counsel alike – acknowledged that New York’s old bail system punished legally innocent people because they were poor, and disproportionately punished people who were Black and Hispanic. And data demonstrates that time in jail for many accused actually decreases, not increases, public safety at a high cost to taxpayers.
No legislation is perfect, including the bail reform just enacted. It was a legislative compromise that was based on years of data and debate and negotiated among the Governor, the Assembly, and the Senate. And no legislation can be tailored to fit every individual case.
It’s important to know that under the new law, judges continue to be able to assess bail for people accused of most violent crimes and to remand (send to jail with no bail) those accused of the most serious crimes. Judges also can continue to order civil commitment or temporary confinement if an accused has serious or suspected mental health issues.
We remain persuaded that we should give the pretrial justice reforms a chance to succeed before we advocate for new amendments. This reform was years in the making. If you agree that the new reforms should not be rolled back at this time, please contact your legislator, Gov. Cuomo, Sen. Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and/or Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. You can find their contact information here.
Central will continue our important work in educating our congregation and the broader community about the scourge of anti-Semitism in our City and how to help combat it. We remain determined to make New York a place overflowing with justice, a state free from oppression and hatred for all of its residents.
To learn more about our justice work, please join us in the Pavilion on Thursday, February 13, from 6-7:30 pm for the launch of Central’s newest advocacy campaign: the reinstatement of the tuition assistance program for men and women who are incarcerated in New York State. If you’d like to register for that now, please click here. This bill would grant thousands of men and woman access to higher education, a measure which has proven to reduce recidivism rates and increase safety within prisons. If you would like to be added to our list of congregants interested in receiving updates on our social action work, please click here.
For more information on the cash bail issue, please see FAQs with additional sources from our Central in Action team.
1. What kind of bail reform did Central Synagogue support in 2019? We urged our elected leaders to pass a bill that would have ended all cash bail for all crimes (misdemeanors and felonies). We don’t believe a defendant’s wealth should determine whether they await trial at home or at Rikers Island. We asked legislators to apply the following principles in crafting bail reform:
2. Doesn’t sending people to jail promote public safety? Not always, often it puts us all at greater risk. For people accused of most misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes, experts such the Vera Institute of Justice, a respected nonprofit research group, report that:
Pretrial jailing — which can cause people to lose their jobs, housing and health care — destabilizes families and communities, exacerbating root causes of harm and violence. Incarceration will not solve the problem of anti-Semitic violence.1
Studies reported in The New York Times have shown that:
Jail breeds crime. A low-risk defendant held two or three days in jail is 40 percent more likely to commit a subsequent crime than an equivalent person held for only one night…Sexual and other physical assaults are most common in the first three days. Almost half of deaths in jail, including suicides, happen the first week in jail2.
For a harrowing account of life at the Rikers Island jail complex for those awaiting a hearing, and the pressure to accept a guilty plea bargain, see Jennifer Gonnerman’s articles in The New Yorker about Kalief Browder, the youth whose tragic story helped galvanize elected officials to enact bail reform after years of delay3.
3. Should we be worried that the people accused of recent anti-Semitic hate crimes have been released? No. Of five people arrested for recent anti-Semitic crimes, three are in jail or civil commitment and two have been released under supervision (with pretrial services check-in requirements).4 It’s likely that judges would have reached the same pretrial decisions under the old bail law.
4. Aren’t most people who are arrested guilty? No. More than half of people arrested for misdemeanors in New York City (and nearly half in the rest of the state) are not convicted.5 Additionally, even for those convicted, a 2010 investigation of the New York City bail system by Human Rights Watch revealed that many people accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies spent more time in NYC jails waiting for trial than the jail time to which they were sentenced on conviction.6
5. Why aren’t New York State judges authorized to assess an accused person’s likely risk to public safety in most cases in the pretrial context? Because it would likely result in excessive and unnecessary incarceration and has been proven to be unfairly inflicted on minority groups. For a deeper dive into the history of public safety in the New York pretrial context, see “Making Sense of Bail Reform in NYS, Part 2,” Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, May 17, 2019, at https://www.katalcenter.org/bailreform_nys2.
6. Why can’t we just rely on judicial discretion in assessing bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes? Because it didn’t work. Human Rights Watch reported on the many reasons why unfettered judicial discretion resulted in serious inequities in the New York City bail system, including: no written guidelines; “profoundly different decisions regarding release and bail for similarly situated defendants;” “brief and hurried [hearings], typically lasting no more than a few minutes;” each judge’s “personal background, experience, predilections, and temperament;” and judicial concerns about potential negative publicity if even one released person commits another crime. 7
7. What is the role of mental illness here? Outsized. One-third of people accused of anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City,8 and roughly 40% of people incarcerated in the New York City Rikers Island jail complex, are estimated to suffer from mental illness. Jail is not the place to receive appropriate mental health treatment.9
8. What are more promising approaches to combating anti-Semitism in New York City? There are MANY non-carceral, effective approaches. Hate crimes in NYC have risen in the last five years. Of 364 hate crimes reported in the City through November 3, 2019, 148 targeted Jewish people. In 2018, there were 353 total hate crime complaints, up from 325 in 2017, and 186 – or nearly 53 percent – had anti-Jewish bias, up from 151 in 2017. Three precincts with large Hasidic populations, all in Brooklyn, reported the most anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2018.10
Funding for community protection has been allocated.11 More funding is also needed for pretrial services, to include treatment and counseling, especially in our State outside New York City. “If anything, high profile cases like [that of Tiffany Harris] should prompt calls for increased funding of the state’s supervised release programs, to ensure they are equipped to serve defendants fighting mental health or substance abuse issues.”12
Almost two-thirds of the attacks in New York City are committed by juveniles,13 which means that community education continues to be important, as demonstrated in one recent example.14
9. How can I get in touch with my elected officials to let them know that new reforms should not be rolled back at this time?
Call Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins
Call Speaker Carl Heastie
Call Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Find Your NYS Senator
Find Your NYS Assembly Member
1 “Progress Is Upholding Justice: Statement from Vera on New York’s Bail Reform Law,” Vera Institute of Justice Press Release, Jan. 08, 2020. https://www.vera.org/newsroom/progress-is-upholding-justice. Vera was founded in 1961 by Herb Sturz and Louis Schweitzer, who developed a new solution to New York City’s overreliance on cash bail that became a model for urban and federal reform. They named their new organization in honor of Schweitzer’s mother Vera, a philanthropist and supporter of Hadassah and a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the 1920s and ‘30s.
2 Tina Rosenberg, “Assisting the Poor to Make Bail Helps Everyone,” The New York Times, Nov. 15, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/15/opinion/bail-assistance-poverty.html
4 Grafton Thomas, charged with felonies, held in jail on $5 million bail, see https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/29/us/new-york-stabbing-rabbi-home/index.html. Steven George, charged with a felony, remanded to jail, psychiatric examination ordered, see https://nypost.com/2019/12/24/brute-yelled-jew-bastard-while-attacking-orthodox-man-on-ues-cops/ . Tiffany Harris, charged with misdemeanors in two separate incidents, released after the first, released under supervision after the second, then civil commitment after a third, see https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/13/opinion/new-york-bail-reform.html?searchResultPosition=1. Zarinah Ali, charged with misdemeanors and a violation, supervised release, see https://nypost.com/2019/12/18/woman-shaken-by-anti-semitic-attack-on-subway-by-nut-shouting-allahu-akbar/. Ayana Logan, arrested for a felony, supervised release to a mental health agency for mental health treatment, see https://nypost.com/2019/12/27/woman-accused-of-anti-semitic-attack-gets-supervised-release-at-arraignment/
5 Over a third of people arrested for felonies in the rest of our State are not convicted, either. Vera Institute of Justice, Empire State of Incarceration, 2017.
6 “The Price of Freedom: Bail and Pretrial Detention of Low Income Non-felony Defendants in New York City,” Human Rights Watch, 2010, at 27-30, 35-39, 46. https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us1210webwcover_0.pdf
7 “The Price of Freedom: Bail and Pretrial Detention of Low Income Non-felony Defendants in New York City,” Human Rights Watch, 2010, at 27-30, 35-39, 46. https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us1210webwcover_0.pdf
8 Mitchell D. Silber, “How to Protect New York’s Jews,” The New York Times, Dec. 31, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/31/opinion/how-to-protect-new-yorks-jews.html
9 Mara Gay, “Democrats Run from their Own Shadows,” The New York Times, Jan. 15, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/13/opinion/new-york-bail-reform.html
12 Mara Gay, “Democrats Run from their Own Shadows,” Jan. 15, 2020, The New York Times.
13 Mitchell D. Silber, “How to Protect New York’s Jews,” The New York Times, Dec. 31, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/31/opinion/how-to-protect-new-yorks-jews.html
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