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Empire State of Incarceration

For decades, thousands of New Yorkers, primarily people of color, were held in jail pretrial—sometimes for years—simply because they could not afford to pay bail.[]See for example Jennifer Gonnerman, “Before the Law,” New Yorker, September 29, 2014. In April 2019, New York passed watershed bail reform legislation mandating pretrial release without requiring bail for most people accused of violations, misdemeanors, and nonviolent felonies .[]FY 2020 New York State Executive Budget, Public Protection and General Government Article VII Legislation, (Albany, NY: New York State Division of the Budget, 2019), Part AA, 182-271. As a result of the reforms, the number of people held in New York jails fell 31 percent—from more than 21,000 on any given day in March 2019, the month before bail reform passed, to an average of just over 14,550 in February 2020, after counties made changes based on the bail reform law. That means that on any given day, more than 6,000 New Yorkers—who in the past would have been held in jail—were free to return to their families, their homes, and their jobs while awaiting their day in court.

Then New York became an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, which transformed the way the criminal legal system operated. Beginning in March, crime rates and arrests dropped steeply.[]From January 2020 to March 2020, the number of total index crimes reported in the 17 counties participating in New York State’s Gun Involved Violence Elimination Initiative fell from 6,816 to 5,499, a 19 percent drop. During that same time period, the number of arrests fell from 6,013 to 4,038, a 33 percent decrease. New York State Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE) Initiative Crime, Arrest and Firearm Activity Report, New York State Division of Criminal Justice Statistics, July 1, 2020. Court hearings became virtual. Courts cancelled jury trials.[]Archive of Covid19 Content,” New York State Unified Court System. And, understanding that jails could become hotspots driving outbreaks of COVID-19 both inside and outside the facilities, some elected officials, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys began working to reduce jail populations. From March to April 2020, the jail population fell another 17 percent—New York’s single largest one-month drop on record. The numbers continued to fall—to just more than 11,000 in July 2020, the lowest reported average daily jail population on record.

Meanwhile, opponents of bail reform worked hard to incite a backlash against the law, wrongly blaming it for new crimes and engaging in fearmongering about a broader danger to the public.[]Jeff Coltin, “How New York Changed Its Bail Law,” City & State New York, April 4, 2020. Faced with such opposition, in April 2020—even as the coronavirus pandemic raged in New York—the legislature amended the bail law . The changes, which went into effect in July 2020, allowed judges to set bail on 25 additional charges—including some misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies—and under other limited circumstances.[] N.Y. S.7506—B (2020), Part UU; and Executive Budget Financial Plan FY 2020 (Albany, NY: New York State Division of the Budget, 2020).

Over the summer, as bail reform rollbacks went into effect and the crisis of the first wave of COVID-19 began to wane, jail numbers across the state began to climb. By November, when the state’s second wave of COVID-19 hit in force, the number of people incarcerated in New York on any given day surpassed 13,000—almost as high as it was in March, when New York first began responding to the pandemic.

For decades, thousands of New Yorkers, primarily people of color, were held in jail pretrial—sometimes for years—simply because they could not afford to pay bail.[]See for example Jennifer Gonnerman, “Before the Law,” New Yorker, September 29, 2014. In April 2019, New York passed watershed bail reform legislation mandating pretrial release without requiring bail for most people accused of violations, misdemeanors, and nonviolent felonies .[]FY 2020 New York State Executive Budget, Public Protection and General Government Article VII Legislation, (Albany, NY: New York State Division of the Budget, 2019), Part AA, 182-271. As a result of the reforms, the number of people held in New York jails fell 31 percent—from more than 21,000 on any given day in March 2019, the month before bail reform passed, to an average of just over 14,550 in February 2020, after counties made changes based on the bail reform law. That means that on any given day, more than 6,000 New Yorkers—who in the past would have been held in jail—were free to return to their families, their homes, and their jobs while awaiting their day in court.

Then New York became an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, which transformed the way the criminal legal system operated. Beginning in March, crime rates and arrests dropped steeply.[]From January 2020 to March 2020, the number of total index crimes reported in the 17 counties participating in New York State’s Gun Involved Violence Elimination Initiative fell from 6,816 to 5,499, a 19 percent drop. During that same time period, the number of arrests fell from 6,013 to 4,038, a 33 percent decrease. New York State Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE) Initiative Crime, Arrest and Firearm Activity Report, New York State Division of Criminal Justice Statistics, July 1, 2020. Court hearings became virtual. Courts cancelled jury trials.[]Archive of Covid19 Content,” New York State Unified Court System. And, understanding that jails could become hotspots driving outbreaks of COVID-19 both inside and outside the facilities, some elected officials, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys began working to reduce jail populations. From March to April 2020, the jail population fell another 17 percent—New York’s single largest one-month drop on record. The numbers continued to fall—to just more than 11,000 in July 2020, the lowest reported average daily jail population on record.

Meanwhile, opponents of bail reform worked hard to incite a backlash against the law, wrongly blaming it for new crimes and engaging in fearmongering about a broader danger to the public.[]Jeff Coltin, “How New York Changed Its Bail Law,” City & State New York, April 4, 2020. Faced with such opposition, in April 2020—even as the coronavirus pandemic raged in New York—the legislature amended the bail law . The changes, which went into effect in July 2020, allowed judges to set bail on 25 additional charges—including some misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies—and under other limited circumstances.[] N.Y. S.7506—B (2020), Part UU; and Executive Budget Financial Plan FY 2020 (Albany, NY: New York State Division of the Budget, 2020).

Over the summer, as bail reform rollbacks went into effect and the crisis of the first wave of COVID-19 began to wane, jail numbers across the state began to climb. By November, when the state’s second wave of COVID-19 hit in force, the number of people incarcerated in New York on any given day surpassed 13,000—almost as high as it was in March, when New York first began responding to the pandemic.

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