We have long been aware of the fact that US prisons hold more Black folks than White, at least in proportion to their representation in the nation’s population. It also became clear that many people were being held in jail for even rather minor offenses because they could not afford to pay bail. In fact judges could set unreasonable bail amounts in order to hold people in pretrial detention.
Citizens who are able to meet bail requirements tend to own homes and have incomes that qualify them as above the poverty level. Since many poor offenders, or alleged offenders, do not own a home or property, or have incomes that rise above the poverty level, setting bail has tended to unfairly disadvantage Black folks and poor folks. Some people spend months in jail before they are tried or sentenced.
Without the Black Lives Matter movement we might not have seen the need for bail reform, but NYS has responded by attempting to right this particular inequality. Backlash from law enforcement groups was instant and fierce. The Bail Reform laws that passed in January of 2020 eliminated cash bail for almost all offenses except violent felonies. At a local level this meant that many repeat offenders kept being returned to the neighborhoods to reoffend. Most of these violations were minor, but disruptive to the community.
Officials were so upset about the Bail Reform laws and so vocal about it that by April, 2020 amendments had already passed the legislature. These amendments expanded the list of charges and situations to nonviolent felonies. This allowed judges to set money bail or even send people for pretrial detention. Bail is supposed to prevent people from being able to leave the area but with no property or job responsibilities it is believed that people will just refuse to appear in court when their presence is requested if they are not held. But because the courts are overwhelmed people can remain in pretrial custody for periods of time that might be longer than they would be held if sentenced in a timely fashion. This challenges the very notion of justice.
The April amendments also offered more options for non-monetary release such as mandated treatment or maintaining employment. These kinds of creative and positive reforms were what the Bail Reform law was aiming at. I’m not sure that local law enforcement spent much time discussing how the Bail Reform law could be used to address unequal justice. Mostly they just uttered a giant vociferous “no way.”
A Case in Point
On March 17, 2021 Syracuse police discovered the body of 93 year old Connie Tuori in her apartment in the Skyline Apartment building. An autopsy revealed that she had been dead since the end of February. Ms. Tuori had traveled the world but her travels had been curtailed by the pandemic, if not by her age. It was determined that she did not die of natural causes.
After a request for public information in the matter a name popped up, a name of a 23-year-old homeless woman, Victoria Afet, with a record of many recent arrests.
Afet seems to have been living in Connie Tuori’s apartment with the dead woman’s body still present.
I guess it is easy to see how this incident can be used by law enforcement to demonize the new Bail Reform Law. On local news the DA ponders aloud on why Afet, with all her recent offenses is still on the streets. However he was being somewhat disingenuous, because clearly the courts had the option of setting bail for at least one of her previous offenses. She has not been proven guilty and we have no idea what kind of evidence exists, but because the crime she may have committed is so serious I doubt that anyone will question that she should be held for bail. If she were released, because innocent until proven guilty, she ought to be under some kind of supervision. She had previously attacked a 74-year-old woman to take her purse in the same apartment complex.
This is a test of Bail Reform that could prove fatal. Tweaking the law would be preferable to overturning the law. The question that must be asked is what happened to Victoria Afet that turned her into a homeless 23-year-old making her way by stealing and possibly killing local seniors, and other lesser crimes? Syracuse has been cited for stubborn segregation and poverty. What are we doing to turn things around in our city and throughout our state? We have problems with violence that are usually found only in much larger cities. Whole generations of Black Syracusans are unable to partake of the opportunities their nation supposedly offers.
Bail Reform Laws alone will not fix this, but this attempt at change should not be abandoned. Of course, if Afet is proved guilty she should go to prison. However, we also should look to Ms. Afet and figure out where our city went so wrong. Redlining was practiced in Syracuse preventing home ownership to many. Home ownership leads to generational wealth. The most successful Black district in the city was replaced by a highway project which displaced thriving home owners and divided the neighborhood by routing traffic over it, creating a dead zone under a lengthy overpass. Change is required in Syracuse and in America and the need is urgent. Bail reform is just a beginning and we should fine tune it until it functions as it should.