We all have a right to be safe. Since being attacked at a July 21 campaign event in Perinton, Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for New York governor, has renewed his calls to roll back civil rights protections by allowing judges to decide who they think could be a danger in the future. The problem is, he doesn’t seem to understand—or maybe doesn’t care—about the real-world implications of such a policy change. It would do more harm than good to Black and brown New Yorkers.
The biggest and most glaring problem in Zeldin’s calls is simple: Bail does not keep people in jail based on the seriousness of the alleged crime—it keeps people in jail based on how much money they have, and that’s all. Calling his proposed policy change a “dangerousness” standard is intended to sound like it promotes public safety, but there’s no actual connection.
Long story short, if Zeldin’s attacker had been charged with a violent felony, where bail was set, and he had the money to make bail, he would have walked free all the same. Somehow, I think Zeldin would have been suspiciously quiet had things played out that way. Right-wing extremists like Zeldin don’t speak up when wealthy people pay for their freedom.
Yet, his attacker was charged with a nonviolent felony–something that has raised eyebrows, given that Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley is closely tied to Zeldin’s campaign for governor. Nonviolent felonies are no longer eligible for bail, a civil rights victory that was won after a multiyear fight to end the mass incarceration of Black and brown New Yorkers.
Would Zeldin’s attacker even have been held to a dangerousness standard? It’s impossible to say, but it’s a serious question, given the clear presence of racial bias throughout our criminal legal system. New York’s bail law has never allowed for pretrial jailing based on predictions of future “dangerousness”—but our old pretrial system drove deep racial disparities.
According to the ACLU, Black men are given bail amounts that average 35 percent higher than those for white men, regardless of the offense. Before bail reform passed, Black New Yorkers charged with a crime were twice as likely as white New Yorkers to spend at least one night in jail pretrial because they were unable to pay bail. Due to delays from the courts, lawyers and law enforcement, it can take a year or more for many to ever see their day in court.
Bail reform was passed because every year, thousands upon thousands of Black and brown New Yorkers were essentially serving lengthy jail sentences without ever having been proven guilty of any crime—just because of their income status.
The consequences of incarceration have lifelong impacts for people, even if they are ultimately cleared of charges. It affects their employment, housing and family arrangements, as well as their mental health and physical wellbeing.
The case that broke our hearts across New York was that of Kalief Browder. Arrested without evidence for a petty theft he did not commit, the 16-year-old’s family could not afford the $3,000 bail set by the judge. Kalief’s mother, Venida Browder, cried herself to sleep most nights, according to her surviving children. Court delay after court delay caused the three years to pass, during which the teenager suffered every form of abuse imaginable on Rikers Island. Eventually, his case was dropped for a complete lack of evidence.
But the trauma of the experience eventually cost Kalief his life.
We should not have two justice systems: one if you’re rich and one if you’re poor. Poverty is not a crime. The so-called “dangerousness” standard is wrong and harmful, because it has nothing to do with dangerousness and everything to do with money.
The U.S. Constitution enshrined a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and New York has never allowed a judge to assign someone bail based on nothing more than a suspicion. Setting a “dangerousness” standard using bail still allows for people to be released—if they can make bail. The bail system punishes people for being poor when they are legally innocent.
Bail reform was a hard-won, grassroots effort, led by Black and brown people who’ve been disproportionately harmed by the system. Since going into effect, it has reunited families, while allowing judges to make decisions on what is actually needed to ensure a defendant’s return to court, including putting people in treatment programs, mental health services and other alternatives.
To play upon people’s sense of fear and vulnerability to gut bail reform is cynical at best—and downright racist at worst. We can create public safety without trapping people in a cycle of poverty—in fact, we create public safety precisely when we don’t. It’s time we start living our values of an equitable and just world.
Rosemary Rivera is co-executive director of Citizen Action of New York. The Rochester Beacon invited Rep. Lee Zeldin to submit an article about his proposed dangerousness standard; he did not respond.