Blinded Justice

By Rabbi Yaacov Behrman

New York City is knee deep in a public safety crisis. At the center of this crisis are the bail reform laws enacted by New York State in late 2020.

Mayor Eric Adams recently asked Albany to call a special legislative session to revisit bail reform laws and address the spiraling crime plaguing the city. He was right to do so. Bail reform was a well-intentioned attempt to make our criminal justice system more equitable, but it also led to a spike in crime that most New Yorkers find untenable.

There is a noticeable shift on the streets of America’s “safest big city.” There’s an unmistakable web of fear and hopelessness cast over the entire city, whether walking at night, riding the MTA or sitting on a park bench. The intent of bail reform was to keep people out of jail by making only the most serious offenses eligible for bail. The extent to which this turned our criminal justice system into a revolving door isn’t clear, but this is the very reason why a special legislative session is needed — to debate, understand, and reconcile two competing social needs — humanity and public safety.

The refusal of both the Governor and the Assembly Speaker to give any consideration to a special session is part of a bigger problem. This was implicit in Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s rebuff of Mayor Adams’ request. In response to an incident where two teens, one of whom had prior arrests for robbery and gun possession, were released without bail after beating NYPD transit officers, the Speaker’s official response was that the “crimes referenced by the Mayor are bail eligible and detention can be sought in family court under current law.”

In other words: The court simply decided not to.

One need look no further than the “Day One” memo issued by then incoming New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg which outlined a slew of crimes that must not be prosecuted, and demanded that bail not be imposed except for the most grievous crimes.

I was the chair of the Community Board 9 Public Safety Committee at that time, and had regular contact with the NYPD. The depth of the demoralization that resulted from the Day One memo was obvious. While DA Bragg did backpedal from that memo after public backlash, the message was sent that the NYPD would be arresting criminals who were destined to be released without bail or prosecution. There’s no question that this institution-wide attitude adjustment has emboldened criminals. The message was sent and received, and the crime data attest to that. The law is no deterrent whatsoever for anyone who regards their neighbors as easy prey. Crime is up. The Governor and legislative leadership can’t tell us why it’s up. They don’t know what’s causing it, or how to respond. The one thing they DO know is that it has absolutely no connection whatsoever to bail reform, and there’s a zero percent chance that they’ll speak of this any further.

Certainly, there are many factors contributing to our current crime wave. The coronavirus pandemic, increasing poverty, social unrest, and misguided laws all play their role. However, the most powerful influence is a change in culture. The City and State of New York seem to have nurtured a culture where public safety is worthless when it conflicts with political expediency. Bail reform was more than just a change in law — it precipitated a major shift in the way society views justice. The underlying message was that the police are an instrument of oppression and the judiciary is inherently unfair. This massive change in worldview gave us a demoralized police force reluctant to bother making arrests, district attorneys who intend to prosecute only the most grievous crimes, and judges who neglect to impose bail even in those rare cases where it’s in their discretion to do so. This mess started in Albany, and can only be cleaned up in Albany. For this reason, I call upon Governor Hochul, Speaker Heastie and our representatives to heed the call for a special legislative session.

Rabbi Yaacov Behrman is the Director of Operation Survival, a PR liaison for Chabad, and the founder of the Jewish Future Alliance. 

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