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Study Finds NY Bail Law Had Little Effect On Crime Rates

New York state's 2019 bail reform law had little effect on crime rates, researchers have concluded.


Although rates of murder, larceny, and motor vehicle theft rose after the law went into effect, none of the increases was statistically significant.


The study, by researchers at the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany), appears in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.


“This study is the first rigorous evaluation of how bail reform in New York State affects crime,” said Sishi Wu, a Ph.D. candidate in criminal justice at SUNY Albany, who led the study with David McDowall. “The results can inform policymakers and address concerns expressed by the public.”


In general, bail reform aims to reduce pretrial jail populations by eliminating cash bail New York's law, which was effective on Jan. 1, 2020, required courts to release defendants in misdemeanor cases and most nonviolent felonies on their own recognizance or under non-monetary conditions unless the defendants are charged with offenses listed in the legislation.


After the law’s enactment, pretrial jail populations declined in the state. Law enforcement officers were concerned that suspects released under the reform would reoffend; they were also concerned that the reform may have created a sense of lawlessness that would not deter criminals from being caught.


The study used data on New York State index crime, which includes monthly counts for seven crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft) from January 2017 to September 2021. It compared New York’s data with data from other states by examining monthly crime counts for 49 states and the District of Columbia from the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program.


The rise in murder, larceny, and motor vehicle theft may have been due to the pandemic instead of bail reform.


The authors controlled for the impact of the pandemic by using a comparison group of other states also affected by the pandemic but without bail reform. The study found that the rate of increase in crimes in New York State was insignificant.


“Despite multiple statements from the media and stakeholders that individuals released under bail reform are no more likely to reoffend, the public continues to believe that bail reform leads to more crime,” said study co-author McDowall,a professor of criminal justice at SUNY Albany. “Using findings such as ours, lawmakers and stakeholders can better address concerns about public safety.”


It was just four years ago that New York’s Democratic lawmakers celebrated a new law that eliminated bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies and, at the time, seemingly added a measure of new justice to a system long faulted for pre-emptively punishing the poor.

Within the last month, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and state legislators scaled back some of the changes in the 2019 law after what the New York Times called "a sharp rebuke from New York’s voters and residents over a rise in crime." Hochul said, “It was very clear that changes need to be made,."


Hochul said she and the legislature would eliminate a provision that requires judges to prescribe the “least restrictive” means to ensure defendants return to court.

The change could have a big impact, giving judges greater discretion to hold defendants — particularly repeat or serious offenders — before their trials.

The changes outlined by Hochul were backed by law enforcement officials and prosecutors, including the state district attorneys association, whose president hailed the latest revisions as a victory for public safety.

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