Ben Mannes: Calculating The Risks in Criminal Justice Reform Laws
On Monday, March 1, 2021, the Biden administration praised the U.S. House of Representatives for passing a police reform bill called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. In doing so, the House introduced legislation in response to public outcry, rather than properly weighing the potential risks to communities. Among the most concerning portions of the bill is it’s proposed changes to cash bail and pretrial confinement laws.
Just a week prior, Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois signed the Pre-Trial Fairness Act, which eliminates cash bail based on the notion that bail constitutes a “poverty tax” overly impacting people of color. Consequently, Illinois joined New York and municipalities like Philadelphia where similar policies establishing legal barriers to bail and pre-trial confinement for criminal defendants already exist — many because local officials failed to innovate ways to hold trials amid the year-long Coronavirus pandemic
In each of these cases, politicians have ignored the urging of criminal justice leaders and victims who contend they’re harmful to the community. Instead, in this hyper-partisan time, it is considered vogue to “dismantle” established practices merely because they’re established. Some even face backlash from a voter base who take to the streets in protest or riot at any provocation. The result is politicians who have recklessly created criminal justice reform policies without performing due diligence on how similar policies have worked in other jurisdictions.
The statistically-false narrative of systemic racism in the criminal justice system has also fueled a national strategy to elect progressive prosecutors with a direct correlation to sharp increases in violent crime. Funding from billionaires has resulted in victories by arguably unqualified candidates in St. Louis (Kim Gardner), Chicago (Kim Foxx), Los Angeles (George Gascon), San Francisco (Chesa Boudin), Orlando (Aramis Ayala), Boston (Rachael Rollins), and, most notably, Philadelphia (Larry Krasner).
Initially, these elections allowed prosecutors to circumvent existing pre-trial laws by refusing to seek bail or appropriate charges requiring incarceration. But once the winds of political capital shifted toward the radical criminal justice reform movement, legislation legitimizing these policies started to emerge.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo enacted sweeping bail and discovery laws in January 2020, leading to a sharp jump in the number of pretrial defendants avoiding jail. In the first two months after bail reform laws took effect, New York Police Department records show that 482 pretrial defendants were charged with 846 crimes, 299 of which were among the seven “index offenses.” Those include murder and manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and vehicle theft.
The correlation between a rise in crime and these new laws is supported in academic literature as well. A study by researchers at Princeton, Stanford, and Harvard found that pretrial release increases the likelihood of re-arrest prior to case disposition by more than 37%.
This brings us back to Illinois, and the question of whether lawmakers examined New York’s and other jurisdictions’ crime data before passing their similar bail reform law. Had they done so, they would have seen that New York City’s murders rose 41%, burglaries by 43%, auto thefts by 58%, and the number of nonfatal shootings jumped by a chilling 95%. Considering that the homicide rate in Chicago was already up 50% before the passage of this new law, it seems that lawmakers were not considering the facts at hand nor where they prioritizing the safety of communities in Illinois.
Despite political talking points blaming the COVID-19 pandemic, the sharp rise of violent crime throughout many of America’s cities is directly correlated with controversial pre-trial law reforms and newly elected progressive DA’s and mayors. In New York, there were 319 murders in 2019. That rose to 468 in 2020, the first year the new bail law took effect. Philadelphia had 315 murders in 2017, the year that Larry Krasner was elected, but finished 2020 with 499. While correlation should not be confused with causation, crime statistics clearly should be evaluated as evidence when considering the potentially dangerous effects of policies passed in the name of “progressive” criminal justice reform.
While there is a true need for smart criminal justice reform in America, such legislation needs to be drafted with careful consideration to the safety of the community at large. Instead of focusing on policies that allow suspects currently in an escalating cycle of criminality to stay on the streets, a safer strategy of pursuing post-conviction record and sentencing reform should be codified by legislators on both sides of the aisle. This way, we can help give a second chance to the roughly 20 million Americans with a criminal record while keeping the other 308 million safe.