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Months after she joined other district attorneys to call mandating pretrial release of many defendants “a dangerous mistake,” Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark told constituents she accepts New York’s new bail reform laws.
“In 1986, when I started as an assistant district attorney, the approach to crime and public safety was nail ’em and jail ’em,” Clark told a packed town hall meeting at the Bronx County Building.
But decades after those “bad old days of The Bronx,” she said, a lot has changed, highlighting the need for evolution in bail rules as well as laws governing pretrial discovery, or the exchange of evidence among prosecution and defense teams.
The changes to the state law, which took effect Jan. 1, are “a little more extreme than I’d like,” Clark conceded Tuesday night, “but my job is to work with it.”
A Polarizing Issue
The new rules eliminate cash bail and pretrial detention for virtually all misdemeanors and in most nonviolent felony cases — leading to a recent spate of headlines about released defendants rearrested on new charges.
Clark’s remarks came amid a polarized fight over New York’s criminal justice reforms as the state legislature considers whether to revisit the measures, passed as part of last year’s budget.
“Reform is an ongoing process, it’s not that you reform a system once and then you walk away,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo of the bail law in a budget address hours before Clark’s town hall.
Mayor Bill de Blasio also is among leaders pressing the state Legislature to rework the law this session to give judges the ability to jail defendants they deem dangerous.
Spokespeople for the other city DAs who authored the April 2019 Daily News op-ed with Clark, Brooklyn’s Eric Gonzalez and Manhattan’s Cy Vance, said the piece still represents their views.
Meanwhile, new Queens DA Melinda Katz told THE CITY earlier this month that “the system is not yet equipped to move entirely away from cash bail,” noting that systems to monitor released defendants aren’t fully in place.
Clark stressed Tuesday that she and her team are still using bail and jail as tools of law enforcement, where the new laws allow.
“Any case where I can ask for bail, I will ask for bail,” she said.
Fear of ‘Fearmongering’
Proponents of the law contend that enabling judges to consider the so-called dangerousness of a person accused of a crime could erode the intent of the reforms, which strive to treat defendants equally, regardless of factors like race and income.
“Retreating from bail reform less than a week after it goes into effect because of predictable fearmongering will be a retreat from New York’s position as a leader in criminal justice reform and will embolden opponents who prefer the status quo,” five dozen groups focused on criminal justice reform, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a January letter to Cuomo.
Some who attended Clark’s Bronx forum, however, expressed concerns about how the new rules could affect public safety.
“I feel like the only people who are going to be benefitting are the criminals,” said one woman during a Q&A segment at the Tuesday event. She asked Clark what measures were in place to protect people like her.
“We’ve been 20 days into this new law, and a lot of things are going on in the press saying that is not working, people are unsafe,” Clark replied.
“But let me tell you, as a DA, as a former judge, as a former assistant DA, as someone who’s lived in this county my whole life — people were being released before the new law,” she added.
‘No Magic Number’
Another attendee at the Tuesday event asked about limits on the number of times a person can be released for a particular crime under the new law. There’s “no magic number,” Clark told him.
Others in The Bronx said that despite reservations, the reforms are necessary for a fairer criminal legal system.
“A lot of people will probably be against it because it is not affecting them,” said Nadia Metayer, who lives in Highbridge. “You’d think differently if it was your brother or your sister or your mom in jail.”
Reverting to the way bail worked in the past, she added, meant embracing a system where a person is “guilty until you can pay for your innocence.”
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