by Erin S.
In January 2020, New York State eliminated cash bail for all misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
Even before the new laws took effect, police, prosecutors, state legislators, and the news media began a campaign of fear-mongering, arguing that the reforms would allow violent offenders back on the street and make communities less safe—pro-carceral forces using tactics alarmingly similar to George H.W. Bush’s now-infamous Willie Horton ad.
Less than a week into the reform, Attorney General Letitia James and Governor Andrew Cuomo made public statements that the new law would have to be changed. Mayor Bill DeBlasio followed suit in early February.
On February 12, 2020, Democratic state senators announced a compromise plan that would significantly undermine the reform—the goal of which is to ensure that no one would remain in jail for the sole reason that they couldn’t afford to post bail, while those who can afford it are freed.
Bail reform and prison abolition
For those of us who are committed not only to reforming the most glaringly unjust elements of our criminal legal system, but also to moving towards the complete abolition of the U.S.’s prison and jail system, New York’s bail reform might seem to only nibble around the edges of the problem. Prominent prison abolitionists like Angela Davis have rightly argued that certain reforms can serve to bolster the prison system by making it appear more humane. All the same, we have to support the types of reforms that actively remove people from the system. New York’s partial elimination of cash bail does just that—it ensures that everyday thousands of New Yorkers go back into their communities, where they can keep their jobs, their families, their health care and, of course, their lives. It also forces New York to invest in alternatives to jail including housing, education, and mental health care, building the infrastructure that we will need as activists continue to push for abolition.
The elimination of cash bail is a small, small step on the path to prison abolition, but if we let our politicians get away with undoing this step just weeks after it went into effect, it will be a huge loss to the people of color being arrested in New York each and every day, but also to the movement more broadly. Eliminating cash bail would fuel our intervention in the circular logic of prisons and profits, which manifests everywhere from charging people to read to exploiting their labor.
On February 26, protestors rallied in Albany to protest the rollback. Of the $75,000 bail that kept him in Rikers for 18 months for a crime he did not commit, Darryl Herring told The Appeal, "that was a ransom. That wasn’t a bail. There was no way of me coming up with $75,000."