Pushing back against efforts to weaken new bail rules, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said they must remain undiluted if there is to be equity in the justice system.
At a press conference outside Manhattan Criminal Court Jan. 7, Mr. Williams and others said the new rules—which prohibit Judges from setting money bail for most people charged with misdemeanors, non-violent felonies and even violent robbery and violent burglary charges, and went into effect on New Year’s Day—were an essential corrective to an unjust criminal-justice structure that favored the wealthy.
The Weinstein Disparity
“Bail reform was about making equity for people who are rich and people who are poor,” he said.
Mr. Williams said there was “no clearer example” of the disparity inherent in the former bail laws than Harvey Weinstein, whose trial on sex assault charges was underway in nearby State Supreme Court, who seemingly had little trouble posting $1 million to keep himself out of jail.
Khalief Brower, on the other hand, he said, languished in a Rikers Island jail for three years—much of that time in solitary—because his family could not afford to post an initial $3,000 bail imposed by a Judge when the then-16-year-old was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of stealing a backpack. Eventually released after prosecutors dropped the charges, Mr. Brower killed himself in his parents’ Bronx home, apparently unable to recover from his time on Rikers.
“What you are saying is that Harvey Weinstein, who was alleged to have raped and sexually abused women in the triple digits, was not dangerous,” the Public Advocate said, with Mr. Brower’s brother, Akeem Brower, at his side. “And that his brother who was alleged to have stolen a book bag was and deserved to be in jail for years.”
Officials: Revisit Rules
In recent days, following several incidents including alleged anti-Semitic attacks on successive days by a Brooklyn woman who was released on her own recognizance following the first clash, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo, among others, have said the new laws need to be revisited.
On Jan. 2, following a meeting with Jewish residents in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the Mayor said he “strongly” believed the new bail rules needed adjusting.
State Legislators, he said, “did some very good reforms but there’s also things that need to be done, particularly empowering judges to determine if someone poses a threat to the surrounding community and giving judges the power to act on that and hold someone in.”
Governor Cuomo, speaking in Manhattan on Jan. 6, called the bail laws “a work in progress” and subject to revision by the Legislature. “We're going to work on it because there are consequences that we have to adjust for,” he said.
And on Jan. 8, Commissioner Shea said that although the NYPD had “been preparing” for the changes by working with both local and Federal prosecutors, there was now “a growing momentum” to reconsider the bail laws.
“If there are broad changes that could have a negative impact...I think New Yorkers will demand a second look, and I look forward to the NYPD being a part of that discussion because I think we have a lot to add in terms of what we see,” he said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show.
‘A Single Standard’
Mr. Williams, though, said those sentiments, implying that criminals pay fewer penalties, were irresponsible and played to people’s fears.
“The fact that people keep talking about bail reform and remand together, it's proving the point that all of these people were making in the first place: Judges were abusing bail to hold black and brown people in jail,” he said. “People are innocent until proven guilty. Legally innocent people should not be locked behind bars.”
Assemblyman Dan Quart, who represents the Upper East Side, said allowing Judges to evaluate a defendant’s “dangerousness” quotient, as some critics of the new bail rules would like, would be to distort bail’s intent, which is to ensure that the accused return to court.
“Is there a single standard of justice? Does the presumption of innocence exist for all of us? Not just for my constituents in the east side of Manhattan, but for 10 blocks north of me in East Harlem,” he said at the press conference, adding that he would resist attempts to roll back the changes. “Is it a single standard that applies to everyone or only the few, the privileged, those with money and power?”
Cabán: A Coded Word
Tiffany Cabán, a former public defender who narrowly lost the Democratic Primary contest for Queens District Attorney last year, was unsparing in questioning the impulse of some who are calling for a rollback of the new rules.
“The idea that we should be adding dangerousness—and the rhetoric that's being used behind it—is disgusting. There is no support, no empirical evidence to show that current charges or past behaviors are an accurate predictor of future dangerousness,” she said.
“People are deemed dangerous and put behind bars simply because of what they look like and what ZIP code they live in.”