Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Way Forward on Criminal Justice in New York State

By Jack Ross-PilkingtonPublished November 18, 2018

Aerial photo of Rikers Island
New York State has made strides towards criminal justice reform and reducing mass incarceration. However, there is still significant work to do.

On October 1st, 2018, New York State’s “Raise the Age” law officially went into effect. Before the law, youth offenders as young at 16 or 17 would be automatically tried as adults. As a result, the nearly 28,000 youth offenders tried as adults per year were subjected to horrific conditions in prisons. In fact, studies show that youth offenders are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in adult prisons than juvenile detention facilities. Because of this, the “Raise the Age” law ended the practice of automatically trying some youth offenders as adults. Some heralded the law as an example of progressive change. Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement that because of the law “New York is moving forward with bold criminal justice reform.” Although the “Raise the Age” law was a step in the right direction, there is still much work to be done. New York should work to end cash bail and pass “Kalief's Law”, which would speed up the trial process).

New York’s bail system has serious flaws. Currently, if a person is arrested for a crime in the state, they are immediately put in jail. They are then brought before a judge, who sets the bail — an amount of money that the defendant needs to pay in order to be released before the trial. If the defendant simply cannot afford to pay the bail amount or acquire a loan, they must remain in jail until the court date — even though they have not been found guilty of any offense.

However, reform seems to be on the horizon. In 2015, State Senator Michael Gianaris proposed a bill that would essentially abolish cash bail. Instead of having judges set a dollar amount for bail, they would have the following three options: 1. The judge could send the accused person to jail immediately (but only if the crime is sufficiently serious), 2. The judge could simply release the person, or 3. The judge could place the accused under some form of supervision (such as an ankle bracelet).

However, critics have pointed out that this method has the potential to be poorly implemented. For example, in California (which has a similar system to the one proposed), the decision of whether to be send the person to jail before trial is based on an assessment system. Some critics have accused this system of making it too easy to detain people before the trial and failing to account for racial bias. However, this is not a problem with ending cash bail in general, but merely the implementation of the system. Creating an assessment system that is not too harsh and controls for racial bias requires time and research, but it still can be done.  

Another potential area for reform is increasing the speed of the trial process. In 2017, a bill called “Kalief's Law” was passed in the State Assembly. The law was named after Kalief Browder, a New York City resident who committed suicide after spending three years in Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder was arrested at age 16 and never actually convicted of a crime. However, he spent multiple years in jail because he could not afford bail and because his trial date was repeatedly postponed.

“Kalief’s Law” would work to increase the trial speed by reducing the ability of prosecuting attorneys to stall for time. Under the current system, prosecutors can simply state that they are ready, but at the next court date declare that they are not ready and have the trial postponed. Under Kalief’s law, if a prosecuting attorney informs the court that they will be ready for trial at a certain date, the court may make a determination about whether or not they will actually be prepared by that date. If the court finds that they are not sufficiently prepared, the court may ignore the date that the prosecution previously stated.

Although Kalief’s law was passed in the State Assembly, it did not pass the Republican-controlled State Senate. Republicans in the legislature have been critical of criminal justice reforms and claim that they are not harsh enough on criminals. However, Democrats have recently won a majority in the State Senate, so there still is a chance that it may be passed in the future. Again, the Governor has also announced support for a similar plan. In addition, there is progress being made in terms of ending cash bail. California has voted to eliminate it entirely, while New Jersey has greatly reduced it’s reliance on the system. Governor Cuomo has also voiced his support for doing the same.

New York has the potential to be one of the most progressive states in the country in terms of criminal justice reform. If the state immediately abolished cash bail, it would become only the second one in the country to do so. And the “Raise the Age” law showed that reform is possible. Since the Governor and both houses of the state legislature are both controlled by Democrats, the future seems optimistic.