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The Lee Zeldin Attack And The Perils Of Bail Reform In America’s Democrat-Run Cities

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How bipartisan strides made in the criminal justice movement are being hijacked by radical bail and police reform policies in the states and cities with skyrocketing violent crime rates, and how moderate and conservative politicians can help “right the ship” during this year’s midterm election cycle.

In the last week, the suspects caught on video committing a brazen assault on a police officer and, in a separate incident, an assassination attempt on Republican New York gubernatorial nominee, Rep. Lee Zeldin – have both been released without bail less than 24 hours after being charged with their violent attacks on public officials. This is thanks to New York State’s radical bail reform law, passed in 2019, which ended cash bail in the Empire State, sharply limiting pretrial detention. As a result, suspects in the midst of a cycle of criminality are returned to the streets – and crime across New York and other cities nationwide that have adopted similar progressive policies has skyrocketed. 

This has prompted an outraged response from many, to include police union president Pat Lynch and former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, who was once credited for the largest drop in a municipal crime rate in American history, to post on his LinkedIn profile with a message urging politicians to repeal these controversial criminal justice-reform related laws. 

In New York, Zeldin’s attacks on bail reform have intensified following his Thursday night attack by fellow Army veteran David Jakubonis, who allegedly rushed Zeldin while wielding an edged weapon at a campaign event near crime-plagued Rochester. Another recent case involving the arrest of drug traffickers who were released after being charged with over $1 million worth of illegal methamphetamines. “As a former prosecutor, I will tell you that when someone comes at someone else’s neck … that alone is meeting the elements of some very severe charges that are on the books,” Zeldin said Monday at a campaign stop in New York City.

Many progressive politicians have championed the elimination of the cash bail system in many states under the banner of “criminal justice reform”. However, with a sharp rise in violent crime over the last two years, these reforms have become a major talking point for voters fearing violent crime in their communities. Amid a contentious midterm elections season and rising crime rates in many American cities, the Democratic quest for bail reform may be undermining strides made in the overall criminal justice reform movement.

While both sides of the aisle support criminal justice reform, their approaches are drastically different. On the left, the progressive approach to criminal justice reform is one that favors relaxing arrests, prosecutions, and charging for a myriad of crimes. The approach favored by conservatives, as exemplified in the bipartisan First Step Act during the Trump administration, examines draconian “mandatory minimum” sentences that have contributed to America’s high incarceration rate, while examining clemency and civil rights restoration initiatives for those who have already payed their debt to society.

In 2021, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was passed, in which the House passed federal police reform legislation in response to public outcry over Floyd’s murder. One week prior to the passage of the Floyd act, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed the Pre-Trial Fairness Act, which eliminated cash bail based on the notion that bail constitutes a “poverty tax” overly impacting people of color. 

Consequently, Illinois joined a league of other progressive jurisdictions that have made changes to their bail systems in recent years, such as New York’s aforementioned 2019 law that completely eliminated bail for most misdemeanors and some felonies, limiting a judge’s discretion to decide whether to detain a person accused of a crime primarily based on whether they are likely to return to court when released.

Progressive district attorneys in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louisand Philadelphia have also curbed the use of money bail. Recently, Detroit’s district court, the largest in Michigan, agreed to change its bail practices in settling a lawsuit filed by two advocacy groups. These legal changes or prosecutor-driven directives have established legal barriers to the setting of cash bail and/or pre-trial confinement for criminal defendants, regardless of the fact that many have a myriad of prior charges and/or even pending trials at the time of their latest arrest.

Supporters say ending cash bail makes the criminal justice system fairer for poor people, keeping them out of jail simply because they can’t afford to make bail. Bail reform proponents cite an analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative that studied research from 13 jurisdictions where pretrial amendments had taken place, to include New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and San Francisco, claiming to have found no evidence that crime increased as a result. This is directly refuted by record-high violent crime rates reported in the time frame directly correlating with the passage of these laws.

In each of these cases, politicians have ignored the urging of criminal justice leaders and victims who contend they’re harmful to the community. The unfortunate result is a potential mischaracterization of the overall criminal justice reform movement based on reckless police reform and bail reform policies created by politicians without the consideration of experts in the field or statistical analysis of how similar policies have worked in other jurisdictions.

Initially, these changes to bail and charging were not codified by law, but internal policies of prosecutors who circumvented existing pre-trial laws by ordering their assistants to seek low/no bail or by lowering arrest charges to require less incarceration. However, once the winds of political capital shifted toward the radical criminal justice reform movement following protests over George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis Police Officers, legislation legitimizing these policies started to emerge. This led to the New York state law passed by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), which eventually allowed Zeldin’s attacker and the subway police assault suspects to walk free. 

In the first two months after bail reform laws took effect, New York Police Department (NYPD) records show that 482 pretrial defendants who were released went on to be charged with 846 crimes, 299 of which were among the seven included in the “index crimes.” 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 while initial pretrial release increases the likelihood of rearrest prior to case disposition by 18.9 percentage points – a 121.9 percent change – it also decreases the likelihood of rearrest following case disposition by 12.1 percentage points, a 35.3 percent change.

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 were they prioritizing the safety of poor communities in Illinois.

While there is a true need for criminal justice reform in America, such legislation needs to be drafted with careful consideration to public safety risks to 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.

Whether it’s through elections of radical prosecutors, appointing police chiefs who reject proven policing principals, or electing lenient judges, the progressive approach to criminal justice reform has dangerous side effects for public safety. These strategies are a back door to the constitutionally-required legislation and/or court rulings required to change laws.

Instead of engaging in public debate to legislate the repeal of a law, these officials simply do not enforce them. Conversely, many states put marijuana laws to a vote and legalized recreational use. Similarly, high courts overturned unconstitutional gun laws in cities like D.C., New York, and Chicago. These issues, both in left and right issues, illustrate the legislative and judicial checks and balances that legally change laws.

These radical prosecution policies, bail reform laws, and reckless municipal regulations demonstrate that leaders from our most crime-ridden jurisdictions are seemingly dedicated to giving criminals a pass on crimes that, if enforced effectively, can help preserve public safety. Furthermore, through innovative correctional reform initiatives, rehabilitation programs can prevent that criminal behavior from metastasizing like a cancer to the point where violators may graduate to more violent crime.

At the same time, these radical bail and police reform policies focus on hamstringing public safety, in direct conflict with the nature of true criminal justice reform efforts. Currently, there are millions of Americans who made one mistake and go decades without any issue are forced to carry the lifelong scar of a criminal record. Considering the estimated 19 million Americans with criminal records, a responsible risk based approach to criminal justice reform should be in promoting civil rights restoration efforts, through clemency, sentencing reform, or pardons for those who have proven long-time rehabilitation and may even carry the burden of a criminal record for crimes that may have since been overturned is far more responsible.

Regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on, we all recognize that society and laws change. Criminal justice reform is a necessary and worthy issue to address, but needs to be done safely, with respect to those who had submitted to a process and have since demonstrated their rehabilitation, not those who are actively engaged in criminality. One can only hope that, amid the midterm elections, moderate and conservative politicians can seize more responsible talking points on criminal justice reform, and safe these worthy efforts for the millions of deserving Americans who need them. 

A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP served in both municipal and federal law enforcement, leading to his designation as a nationally recognized subject matter expert in security, public integrity, and criminal justice reform. He has served as a consultant and expert witness and as the Director, Office of Investigations for the American Board of Internal Medicine from 2008-2017. 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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