Bail reform has been a hotly debated issue in New York and throughout the United States, with proponents arguing that a cash bail system is unfair to poorer defendants and opponents arguing that setting bail for those arrested deters crime. In 2019 New York lawmakers passed a law eliminating bail for most misdemeanors and some non-violent felony charges, with the accused allowed to go free until a court hearing or released with conditions such as electronic monitoring. An amendment that went into effect in July 2020 rolled back some aspects of the reform, expanding the list of offenses eligible for cash bail.
The SCJ study, “Does Bail Reform Increase Crime in New York State: Evidence from Interrupted Time-Series and Synthetic Control Methods,” was published earlier this month in Justice Quarterly. Led by Sishi Wu, who received her PhD from SCJ in April, it’s the first study to evaluate the effects of New York’s bail reform law on the entire state and “the first attempt to disentangle the effects of bail reform and national historic events” such as the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Wu and co-author David McDowall, a distinguished teaching professor at SCJ.
Their study found that murder, larceny and auto theft increased after bail reform, but that bail reform itself did not contribute to that increase.
“We used data from the New York State index crimes, consisting of monthly crime counts for seven offenses: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft,” Wu said. “Monthly crime data from other states were also collected from the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program to create a control group to compare with New York.”
Jail population dropped in the state from 2019 to 2020 — one of the goals of bail reform. During the same period, violent crime rose by 1% in the state and murders increased by nearly 47%, from 570 in 2019 to 836 in 2020. However, this increase could be attributed to the pandemic, which caused disruptions ranging from a lack of work and income to a lack of social services.
To account for the pandemic, the authors compared New York crime data with a control group constructed of other states similarly affected by the pandemic that did not reform their bail laws. That comparison showed “NYS experienced 0.02 more murder, 6.16 more larcenies, and 1.16 more motor vehicle thefts per 100,000 people per month than its control series after the bail reform” – not a statistically significant increase, the study found.
“Using findings such as ours, legislators and stakeholders can better address public safety concerns when continuing the implementation of bail reform,” McDowall said.