“The shift in public sentiment is much more likely to have been caused by the torrent of negative articles about the reforms.”
Before bail reform was enacted in 2019, New York’s pretrial justice system was in a state of crisis. Although many New Yorkers charged with crimes, especially people in New York City, were released without bail, judges routinely set unaffordable bail amounts in tens of thousands of cases each year. This created a two-tiered system in which a person’s income determined whether or not they would be jailed—sometimes for years or months—before trial. In fact, more than 60,000 legally innocent New Yorkers were jailed before trial each year1. Thousands of legally innocent New Yorkers sat behind bars each day, separated from their families and communities, often losing their jobs, simply because they could not afford to buy their freedom. Evidence shows that Black New Yorkers were especially vulnerable to this unjust system. One study found that Black people were twice as likely as white people to spend at least one night in jail before trial.2
In an attempt to reduce the number of people held in New York’s jails and address racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system, legislators passed historic changes to the state’s bail laws in April 2019. These reforms mandated pretrial release without bail for people charged with almost all misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. As a result of these changes, bail and pretrial jailing were eliminated for 90% of statewide arrests.3 Although bail reform sharply reduced the number of bail-eligible crimes, the law stopped short of fully eliminating bail and pretrial detention. Judges maintained their ability to set bail for people charged with violent felonies and a select number of other offenses and circumstances. Furthermore, a person awaiting trial in the community could still be subject to bail or pretrial detention at a later point if they violated the rules of pretrial release.4 In short, despite the efforts of advocacy groups across the state to fully eliminate bail and pretrial jailing and the overwhelming evidence that these practices are harmful, costly, and racially discriminatory, they remained a part of New York’s criminal justice system and continued to impact thousands of people each month.
Despite the clear need to reform New York’s bail laws and the many concessions granted to law enforcement during the legislative process, many law enforcement and other public officials vehemently opposed the reforms. Opponents of bail reform found a willing audience in press outlets across the state and used the media to wage a reckless campaign against the new laws. Many news outlets printed irresponsible articles that falsely portrayed bail reform as harming public safety, stirring up public fears. This onslaught of bad press began before the reforms were even implemented and only ramped up after bail reform took effect on January 1, 2020.
In the months after these stories began appearing in news outlets across the state, public sentiment shifted against bail reform. In April 2019, 55% of voters supported bail reform; by January 2020, support had dropped to 37%.5 This decline in support could not have been driven by the impact of the new laws, as they had only been in effect for a few days at the time of the January 2020 poll. The shift in public sentiment is much more likely to have been caused by the torrent of negative articles about the reforms.