If the man Cortland police arrested looked familiar that night, it was because he had been arrested three times in just a few weeks.
It was May 18, 2020, and police found the homeless man pulling a large dolly filled with items, many from a South Avenue home. Just a few weeks before, he had been charged with stealing a washer and dryer from an Owego Street home, and later with breaking into Cortland Machine and Tool on Grant Street. Then he was charged with an April burglary of a Groton Avenue home.
He wasn’t alone. Just a couple of months after bail reform took effect and arrest meant release without bail for most people charged with non-violent felonies, a handful of people were arrested on a low-level property-crime spree, police said: 37 break-ins and car larcenies in about six weeks.
“It’s unbelievable. We’re getting beat up by literally three or four people here in the city,” Lt. Michael Strangeway said then.
Greater Cortland area police and prosecutors want to repeal bail reform but social justice advocates say bail works directly against Black, poor and homeless people, an expert said.
Bail reform was meant to release individuals without bail — so low-income or lower-class suspects don’t get stuck in jail while wealthier people walk free — but it has acted as a revolving door for criminals to take advantage of the system, said state Sen. Peter Oberacker (R-Maryland).
The law, effective Jan. 1, 2020, was meant to reduce jail populations while awaiting prosecution, said Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti, and followed the suicide of a man charged with a non-violent misdemeanor after two years at Rikers Island, New York City’s primary jail complex. He could not afford bail.
“Rikers Island needs reform but that shouldn’t saddle the entire state,” Perfetti said.
“It was done without any input from law enforcement,” said Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms. “Crime is going up, no one is going to jail and eventually, people have to start paying their fees.”
“If you put both of them together, COVID and bail reform, you really couldn’t ask for a more perfect storm,” said Capt. Nick Lynch, Cortland County jail administrator.
Before bail reform was enacted, courts started to release people charged with minor offenses as the change in law started to get closer, knowing it was coming, Helms said. Jail numbers decreased by the anticipated 40% to 70% but Helms, Perfetti and Lynch knew it was only a matter of time until the numbers came back up.
“Obviously, you’re going to see a reduction in people in the jail,” Helms said. “I’d be amazed if we don’t see our numbers getting back to what we were used to by the end of the summer.”
In September 2019, the jail population was 90, Helms said. In January 2020, the population had dropped to about 59, and further dropped to the high 30s when COVID two months later. Now, the numbers are starting to rise — 52 men and six women on Thursday — but the jail can house only 45 inmates with the pandemic-reduced capacity.
As people were released, no bail was set to ensure their appearance in court, crime increased, the system was taken advantage of and warrants were issued, Helms said. In just the past month, Helms has seen an increase in the number of warrants issued.
Now, criminals are released and rearrested time after time, committing the same offenses and adding to what their sentence would have been, Helms said. Some criminals who would have received probation for single offenses will now face felonies and prison sentences for committing several crimes in a number of months.
LESS BAIL, MORE WARRANTS
“Bail reform has allowed them to be out and continue to commit crimes without having to answer to them,” Helms said. “The court then has to invite them back for sentencing but since there is nothing held over them to appear, they often don’t show up.”
Arrest warrants have to be issued. If all goes well, Helms said, the subjects are local, but three to five leave the state each year and the sheriff’s office must invest time and money to chase them down.
Then, because the original offenses are non-violent, they’re released again and the cycle continues, he added.
“It’s not budgeted for so it’s a budget concern,” Helms said. “My officers have to go through a lot. There’s the possibility that officers are going to get hurt. There’s nothing good about it.”
As COVID restrictions ease, warrant concerns are even more pressing as virtual arraignments will stop soon, Helms said, making court appearances more difficult for suspects from out of town or out of state. He expects more people to skip them.
With capacity reduced to 45 inmates, Helms must look to other counties to take in the excess inmates. But other counties are reluctant to accept inmates because of COVID concerns.
In the past, boarding out inmates has cost Cortland County up to $450,000 a year.
“Maybe perhaps we’re saving money because we’re not boarding as many inmates out,” Perfetti said. “I am not sure if we are saving money that way but if we are, there is maybe the one positive.”
“It would be great if we all sat around the table and figured it out rather than someone just deciding that we’re just going to run with it,” Helms said. “I can’t walk with it, let alone run with it.”
“This is why we elect our judges, to take the evidence that is being presented and to use their discretion,” Oberacker said. “The first step would be bringing that back.”
Still, legislators have not met with district attorneys, sheriff’s or officers on the front line who are directly affected by these policies, Oberacker said.
Being in the minority, the Republican conference will need some of the majority Democratic conference to agree to a repeal, Oberacker said. Without their help, Oberacker speculates the repeal won’t make it to the floor.
BAIL REFORM REFORMED?
Bail reform was first enacted to correct inadequacies in the system, Oberacker said. And the attempt was noble, even if it fell short.
“I hate to say this but if you ask me, they basically flunked the public safety test,” Oberacker said. “There is no shame, it was a noble cause and a noble try. We all make mistakes, let’s look at it, let’s repeal it and take the data coming from our DA and our patrol men and women and start anew.”
“Bail reform for those of us who are working on social justice and criminal justice matters is a very welcomed reform,” said Mechthild Nagel, professor of philosophy and Africana studies at SUNY Cortland and coordinator for United Voices of Cortland, Racial Justice Organization. “We find that many who are imprisoned before a judgment is rendered are imprisoned because they can’t afford to pay bail.”
A bail system targets Black and poor people, Nagel said.
That doesn’t happen in Cortland, Helms said.
However, data from the jail between 2004 and 2019 do show that while Black people constitute 2.1% of Cortland County’s population, they make up 15.4% of the people kept at the jail.
My support, as a social justice professor, is looking at who is hurt by it,” Nagel said. “We forget that these people are mothers and fathers and children — their whole families are taken hostage by the system.”
Nagel suggested having fewer people incarcerated will also protect the public. When parents are incarcerated, children can develop emotional and behavioral problems.
“Women are finding themselves incarcerated as mothers and there’s a direct line of mothers incarcerated that paves the way for children to find themselves incarcerated as adults,” Nagel said. “Children are then placed in foster care and there is a clear connection between foster care and prison.”