TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—New York State’s bail reform laws were certainly controversial when they were approved in 2019 and implemented in 2020, with criminal justice advocates celebrating their implementation as a win for civil rights for those accused but not yet convicted of crimes. Its main thrust was to reduce the number of people who would remain behind bars because they couldn’t afford to pay bail and get themselves out by making many non-violent felonies and misdemeanors ineligible for bail.

More than three years later, Gov. Kathy Hochul and her administration have been mulling changes to the law regardless, fueled in part by the election of NYC Mayor Eric Adams, who has been a vocal opponent of the reforms. His objections have been bolstered by a few headline-grabbing tragedies perpetrated by people who could have still been detained under previous bail laws.

In Tompkins County, District Attorney Matt Van Houten has generally been a supporter of the reforms. He supported them when they were first introduced, though he noted that the reforms would potentially make prosecutions more difficult because of the changes to evidence-gathering timetables—part of the larger discovery reforms that brought New York more in line with the rest of the country after previously having some fairly slanted rules for discovery, in the minds of defense attorneys at least. He also noted that he would have liked District Attorneys around the state to be more involved in the initial formulation of the reforms.

Looking back after the first three years of bail reform, Van Houten said the laws have had a rather muted impact in Tompkins County. He said any connection to the spate of violent crime that occurred during autumn 2021, when there was a string of violence in the city’s West End that has now largely subsided, or really any other violent crime, is unrealistic.

“I don’t believe that there’s a connection between any violent crime and the bail reform laws,” Van Houten said. “Violent crime is always cyclical, it happens for many reasons. Sometimes it’s predictable, sometimes it isn’t. But I don’t think any of the violent crime that has happened recently is attributable in any way to bail reform.”

Data culled from the state’s Office of Court Administration website shows that of 652 arraignments held in Ithaca City Court since the reforms took place in 2020, 646 of them did not have bail set. Of those cases, 419 did not have another arrest (and 130 of the records are blank), while 64 received misdemeanors while they were out. There were 24 non-violent felonies, but just nine violent felonies, the type of which is shown below.

A flowchart showing the number of arraignments in Ithaca City Court, and the outcomes for cases of people who did not have bail set before their trial. (Data and chart from the New York State Office of Court Administration)

The issue has been politicized since the beginning, and continues to be now. Entities like police unions have spoken out against bail reform constantly, even condemning Hochul’s recently announced modifications of the reforms — meanwhile, advocates for those in the criminal justice system say the modifications, which make more gun charges bail eligible (among other tweaks reported by Gothamist) and relax some discovery reforms from 2019, will needlessly and unfairly leave more people behind bars for longer before their trials.

“There’s a lot of propagandizing going on by various groups who are members or stakeholders in the justice system,” Van Houten said. “It’s a convoluted and complicated issue. It’s one of those buzz issues that everybody blames for everything that they’re not happy about.”

Van Houten has maintained since 2017 that his office’s policy for bail is not to seek it unless they believe the person’s release could put the community at danger. It’s a flexible policy position, but one that he has touted for years and has resulted in lower and lower incarceration numbers in the Tompkins County Jail since he took over.

“Our philosophy about bail has gone back to the beginning of my first term, which is we don’t want anybody in jail. We’d never want to recommend bail for someone for a non-violent offense, where someone who was charged with a similar offense with financial resources can just post bail,” Van Houten said. “We don’t want that financial disparity to be affecting the community. We don’t want people to be in jail who can’t afford bail.”

Defense attorneys, on the other hand, have an overwhelmingly positive view of the reforms, though specifically the discovery reforms, saying that it has produced far more fair outcomes in the criminal justice system. A statewide survey distributed to defense attorneys showed that, particularly concerning discovery reform, they feel the new laws have had the desired impact on the criminal justice system.

The survey’s conclusion states, “The survey results show that the vast majority of criminal defense attorneys believe that discovery reform has achieved the desired results and has positively impacted not only their ability to provide competent representation, but also the fairness of New York’s criminal justice system.”

Just from that survey, which received answers from over 500 attorneys throughout New York State, 93 percent said the discovery changes “improved their ability to evaluate cases and develop case strategies.” Eighty percent said the discovery reforms “[have] made criminal case proceedings fairer,” though obviously that’s coming from a defense attorney perspective.

The full survey report is at the bottom of this article.

In Van Houten’s estimation, there have been some negative consequences of the reforms, though they have far more to do with low-level offenses that happen repetitively, fueled by poverty or addiction. Under the bail reform laws, someone will likely only receive an appearance ticket, a ramification that is relatively easy to ignore—theft is most often associated with this issue, though Hochul’s aforementioned changes to punishments for certain theft thresholds could change that.

“I can’t think of cases where someone was released on bail and then committed a violent crime,” Van Houten said. “The main effect is that people who continue to commit lower-level crimes, like vandalizing businesses or stealing from businesses, breaking into businesses […] There’s really no way to get the person to even appear in court, to start addressing the needs that they have and the things that are causing them to persistently commit these crimes.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com