‘It’s Madness’: An Analysis Of What Progressive Bail Reform Is Doing To American Cities

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Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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One of the most popular policies among “progressive prosecutors” is creating headaches for many police officers and attorneys.

“Because we are sworn to protect and serve the public, we sincerely hope that we will not be proven right about this new law,” the Illinois Law Enforcement Coalition said in a statement earlier this year. “Please don’t let us measure its dismal failure by the shattered lives it produces.”

The statement was in response to a new criminal justice reform bill signed into law by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker in February. Among the provisions in the law is the elimination of cash bail by the year 2023.

Illinois is simply following in the footsteps of several other Democratic-controlled jurisdictions that have drastically reduced, or eliminated almost entirely cash bail. The policy is popular among progressive prosecutors, who argue that cash bail needlessly incarcerates people of color and those who are poor for crimes they haven’t yet faced trial for.

Plenty of police officers and prosecutors have spoken out against these types of reforms, but they aren’t slowing down. “It’s madness. It’s making us all less safe,” Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown recently told The Wall Street Journal.

Other cities and states that have passed significant bail reforms, aside from Illinois, include Washington, D.C., New York and New Jersey. New York State significantly reduced the number of crimes that cash bail could be applied to in early 2020. Months later, lawmakers walked back some of the provisions, but cash bail remains weaker than before.

Washington, D.C., passed the Bail Reform Act back in 1992. As recently as 2017, up to 12% of suspects released in the city missed a court date. (RELATED: ‘Defund The Police’ Is So Unpopular That Democrats Are Now Claiming Republicans Did It)

“Oftentimes, people who are arrested for violent crimes, ranging from possession of a gun to actually firing a gun at other people, who are shooting people, those people will be back out on the street within a few days,” Washington, D.C. police union chairman Gregg Pemberton recently said on the Vince Coglianese Show. “The way that you prevent these crimes is by sending a message, that these are the penalties that come with this behavior. That’s kind of what the criminal justice system is about… when you take that away, criminals become emboldened.”

The California Supreme Court struck a major blow to cash bail in March, ruling that defendants couldn’t be detained simply because they cannot afford to bail themselves out. New Jersey all but ended cash bail in 2017.

Now, amid a skyrocketing murder rate in nearly all of America’s major cities, some are beginning to question if this popular progressive policy is linked to the rise in homicides.

“Well-intentioned people are being deceived,” wrote Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters in an op-ed for the Columbus Dispatch this week. “Despite what activists may tell you, these reforms and attitudes about law enforcement and the criminal justice system are the reason violent crime is spiking nationwide. Bad people who want to do bad things feel emboldened by a culture that will excuse every bad act.”

Washington, D.C.’s police union blamed elected officials for the spike in violent crime, saying they weren’t allowed to “do our job.”

The evidence is mixed on just how closely bail reforms can be tied with higher murder and violent crime rates. There are a large number of variables in play, and crime is rising in a whole host of American cities — not just ones that have eliminated cash bail.

Some argue bail reform can affect failure to appear rates though, which is the rate at which suspects do not show up for their court dates after being released from custody, with or without bail.

One study found that nationwide, failure to appear rates typically range between 17% and 22%. In New York, though, it said the rate hovered as high as 47% as recently as 2016. (RELATED: Crime Is So Bad In Atlanta The State Might Ask Locals To Fund The Police For A Tax Deduction)

In New Jersey, a state that has implemented these cash bail reforms, the failure to appear rate pre-pandemic was around 20%.

Some judges have tried to push back. Bronx Judge Louis Nock set bail at $20,000 for alleged serial synagogue vandal, Jordan Burnette, arguing that smashing glass counts as a violent felony. However, another judge released Burnette later that same day, according to the New York Post. “My hands are tied,” said Nock regarding New York’s bail reform laws.

Still, despite concerns about these policies and the rising crime rate, progressives continue to champion ending cash bail as a pro-equity policy. “This system discriminates against people of color and the poor, and it is in dire need of reform,” wrote the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal think tank, earlier this year. “Some states and cities are making progress, but much more work is needed to bring fairness to this corner of the criminal justice system.”

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, one of the highest-profile leaders of the “progressive prosecutor” movement, said the recent crime wave is just more evidence in favor of ending the allegedly archaic cash bail system.

“I think we’re all impacted by the injustice of children suffering wounds,” he said. “We need to get rid of cash bail completely.”