Despite the COVID-19 crisis that has upended the entire state, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Senate are still trying to rollback recently enacted bail reforms to grant judges new powers to unilaterally detain people brought before them on criminal accusations. In upstate New York, the result of these changes would be disastrous.
Bail reform in New York State has long been described as a City issue, but those of us that live in rural counties have a major stake in the debate. It’s tough to remind legislators that upstate New York, geographically, is much bigger than downstate, but we are often forgotten.
While many upstate officials have been painting a frightening narrative around the new bail reform law, the reality is, in our communities, bail reform and removing bias against poor people from our criminal justice system was desperately needed and will reduce harms to our community.
The Senate and the Governor are both pushing plans that would end money bail and give judges “discretion” to indefinitely detain people pre-trial. This should particularly alarm residents of rural counties, where the unique relationship between judges and their constituents contributes greatly to an unfair, and harmful system.
Contrary to popular understanding, the real jail crisis in New York State is outside of New York City. Broome County has a low crime rate, but is one of the most incarcerated counties in the state, with a jail population rate that is more than twice as high as New York City’s.
In 2016, 76% of our jail population were people held pre-trial, waiting to have their case adjudicated — and in many instances, dismissed altogether. Nine people have died in Broome County jails since 2011.
Racial disparities, also typically viewed as a City issue, are even worse here. Black people in Broome County are 8 times as likely to be held in jail compared to their white neighbors despite a small percentage of our population being people of color. We hear racialized language, straight from the bench.
Our drug court has almost no participants of color because judges are empowered to hold those opportunities for people they believe to be deserving of them, which more often that not is reserved for white people accused of crimes or people they have a previous relationship with. People of color only get the jail option.
It wasn’t too long ago when a large drug case put this reality into stark terms: seven people were arrested on similar charges and the three Black people arrested were sentenced to long prison terms while the four white people involved all received treatment options. This is what judicial discretion looks like in upstate New York.
Broome County is not alone in this respect. In our surrounding rural counties like Delaware, Tioga and Chenango, for example, judges, who are relatively conservative compared to downstate, know many people in the community personally, they see them in the grocery store, they can hold grudges and build stigma against entire families, across generations. We see these biases show up across the entire legal system in these counties where judges will mention familiarity with a person from the bench and use the opportunity to “teach a lesson” to a person.
All of the problems listed above are a result of judges using their discretion in harmful ways. It is imperative that we do not expand the opportunity for judges to use their discretion to incarcerate. In all situations, we see biases brought forth through their discretion.
Thanks in large part to bail reforms passed in Albany last year, our jail population in Broome County is on the decline for the first time, seeing the daily population drop by 23% over the past year. https://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/ojsa/jail_population.pdf Given the tremendous harm experienced by our neighbors in the jail, these declines are something all residents of the county should welcome with open arms. Fewer people will die in jail as a result. Fewer people will die from an overdose when released as a result.
We must not allow the legislature to roll back these reforms. A recent report underscored what we know to be true here, Black people will be most harmed by efforts to undermine the new bail reform.
We see the judges deciding who is worthy of treatment and who is not. If they have the power to just put people in jail, we should expect them to do that in a biased way.
Alexis Pleus is the Founder of Truth Pharm