Mayor-elect Eric Adams waffled Wednesday on his demand to toughen New York bail laws — making remarks on national TV that repositioned him in alliance with Albany leaders who are adamantly against scaling back landmark reforms.
He also vowed to appoint “the right judges” to Criminal Court and said he expected them to make sure “those who pose an imminent threat to my city” stay off the streets.
Fresh off his Nov. 2 win, Adams had surprised state lawmakers when he said a top first-year priority would be working with Albany to back bail reform — giving judges the power to lock up repeat violent offenders pre-trial.
“We noticed a number of cases where people have been extremely dangerous. They’ve been out the next day and it is really creating a public safety issue,” Adams told reporters at the Somos political summit in Puerto Rico.
But when asked by “The View” co-host Whoopi Goldberg whether he would have the power to beef up the bail law as mayor, Adams suggested his position had evolved after a recent sitdown with Assemblymember Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn).
“What’s happening now, it’s not the bill — the judges,” Adams said on the ABC daytime talk show. “They’re not putting bail on where they could put bail on.”
A campaign spokesperson, Evan Thies, said shortly after Adams’ TV appearance that the soon-to-be-mayor, a former cop who made fighting crime a big part of his campaign, had not changed his stance.
“The mayor-elect thinks there needs to be additional criteria for bail to protect New Yorkers against violent individuals, and also that, in the meantime, judges can do more with the tools they have,” said Thies.
Adams may have an ally in Gov. Kathy Hochul, a fellow Democrat who opened the door to altering the law as she runs for her first full term next year against progressive candidates who include state Attorney General Letitia James and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
“We’ll work very closely with Eric Adams to make the changes, if necessary,” Hochul told reporters in Albany earlier this week.
Candidates who campaigned on the theme of rolling back bail reform gained district attorney and county executive posts in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, intensifying pressure on Democrats to make concessions in the legislative session that begins in January.
The bail reforms signed into law by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2019 require judges to release defendants after arrest on many nonviolent charges. Even when they do set cash bail, judges are only permitted to decide on whether it ensures someone will show up for their future court dates.
In certain felony cases, judges have the power to order someone held in jail. Updates passed last year allow them to take into account past history in deciding on a bail or release plan — but judges are still not supposed to consider “dangerousness” in these decisions.
In a recent interview with THE CITY, bill sponsor Walker said it’s imperative to hold the line against political pressures to roll back reforms, and what she describes as politically motivated misinformation.
“They never even gave bail reform a chance. There are thousands of individuals released and not rearrested and I consider that a huge success of the bill,” she said. “I look forward to strengthening it and look forward to going on an education tour to really give people the truth.”
A Mix of Data
Numbers compiled by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice indicate that in any given month since bail reform was enacted, more than 95% of those arrested and released prior to trial are not rearrested.
At the same time, MOCJ found, about 25% of those arrested in the first six months of 2021 already had a case pending against them.
State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) told THE CITY that his chamber sees no need to change the bill.
“I do not believe that the data justifies revisiting what we’ve done,” said Gianaris, the chamber’s deputy majority leader and a co-sponsor of the bill.
“Eric Adams hasn’t even been sworn in yet and already he’s stepping into something in a very unfortunate way and it’s not connected to reality,” Gianaris added. “So hopefully — I’m wishing him success — but hopefully he figures out that this is not the source of his problems.”
The bail law, passed two years ago by the Democrat-dominated Legislature, quickly became a target for law enforcement leaders who blamed the measure for a surge in crime and gun violence during the pandemic.
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea for months pointed to the reforms as a factor in rising crime, only to backtrack to state lawmakers in October, saying, “When you look at who we arrest for crimes, it’s going to be small numbers.”
Assailing bail reform has also been a tenet for GOP lawmakers, including Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-Brooklyn/Staten Island), who has frequently held campaign and congressional news conferences highlighting crimes committed by individuals who’d been released without bail.
The messaging found an audience among New Yorkers nervous about crime. This year, Republicans picked up two additional seats in the City Council, bringing their total to five out of 51 members.
“It’s a worn Republican playbook: When in doubt, stoke fears in suburban voters,” said Peter Kauffman, a principal at Blue Jacket Strategies and Democratic strategist.
The issue is sure to play a major role in the governor’s race, with Rep. Lee Zeldin, the New York State GOP’s pick for governor, already incorporating a promise to repeal the law into his campaign.
“The largest issue for people across the spectrum, right to left, conservative to liberal, Republican to Democrat, they’re telling me that they support repealing cashless bail,” said Zeldin at a news conference last week. “They share stories about how cashless bail in their county has eroded public safety.”
The Bail Blame Game
Jullian Harris-Calvin, director of the Greater Justice New York program at the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, said that bail reform critics blame the law for “every crime and public safety incident that occurs.”
“This narrative, propagated by law enforcement and now the incoming mayor, presents a false choice between public safety and criminal justice reform. But rhetoric is not fact, and the facts are clear: Bail reform has been shown to not only reduce the number of people in jail, but also to reduce crime and increase public safety,” Harris-Calvin said.
Adams has attempted to thread the needle and say he’s not interested in incarcerating the desperate — just the dangerous.
“I’m talking about imminent threat to safety, particularly gun violence. If you are a person that discharges a weapon or a person that on multiple occasions you were found to carry a weapon, that should be taken into account,” Adams said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show earlier this month.
“I’m talking about dangerous crimes. I’m not talking about someone [who] steals food because he or she — they are hungry. I’m talking about those who are carrying out those specific violent crimes,” he added.
For Walker, the difference between discretion and dangerousness is just semantics.
“They’re using discretion as another way of saying ‘dangerousness’ and that’s the issue here,” she said. “Don’t mislead people into thinking something is one way because you want them to jump on board. It’s misleading and deceptive and it’s just not right.”
“I’m more than happy and willing to meet with the governor and with the mayor-elect to discuss bail reform and why it’s better than what we had before,” she added.