Bail reform measures have taken hold. As Jan. 1 came to pass, law enforcement officials around the state braced for some of the most-significant changes in decades. Chief among them, the end of cash bail on misdemeanors and low-level felonies.
However, for one law enforcement leader in Seneca County the reality of the changes has already been highlighted. A 32-year-old Seneca Falls man was arrested on a felony assault charge in early December following an incident on Nov. 24, 2019. Seneca Falls Police Chief Stuart Peenstra said the victim spent days in the hospital, and the suspect, Dustin Parker, of Seneca Falls was charged with second-degree assault.
At the time, Peenstra said that the person engaged in a physical altercation with another individual at a local business.
After Parker was taken into custody in early December, he was released on his own recognizance. At the time, Peenstra voiced concern, as well as frustration, with local justices being asked to follow bail reform changes before they legally took hold.
Peenstra said that while the suspect was released on his own recognizance, an order of protection was issued on behalf of the victim. The victim’s employer, the unidentified local business, was also included in that protective order.
The chief described the victims injuries as “serious.” The individual was transported to Geneva General Hospital, then transferred to Strong Memorial Hospital for several days.
Days after being arrested, Parker was taken into custody a second time. He violated the protective order issued after the assault charge was filed.
He was arraigned on new misdemeanor charges, and transported to the Seneca County Correctional Facility.
For Peenstra, and like minded members of law enforcement, this is the problem. They claim the end of cash bail creates a safety risk for victims and families of those impacted by crime.
Supporters of the bail reform measures contend that this simply levels the playing field, taking economic status or means out of the equation. They say it also stops bail from being used as a punitive measure before justice can run its course.
“Situations similar to this arrest will happen more frequently with no immediate justice to the victims or their family,” Peenstra said. “This new legislation has taken ‘innocent until proven guilty’ to an unjust level.”
Peenstra said he also has an issue with the changes being adopted under the guise of the New York State budgetary process. “These changes in criminal justice policy have nothing to do with the budget,” he added. “By including these changes in the budget bills, Criminal Justice Professionals, the public, and even most Legislators, were deprived of the opportunity to give effective comment and guidance on these important changes.”
He didn’t stop there, though. Peenstra said his department, along with the law enforcement community as a whole, is “disgusted and disturbed” by the changes. He said that ending cash bail, and mandating release on the more than 400 crimes is a significant problem for law enforcement and the community at large.
“The criminal justice system as we know it is going to be changed entirely, but not for the safety of our community or the protection of victims,” Peenstra continued. “This law gives MORE freedom to criminals. There was no doubt a need for some changes in the current system, but these changes are irresponsible.”
One of the major ways that the bail reform measures come up short, Peenstra contends, is allowing judges or justices to evaluate the dangerousness of individual defendants. “So if a person commits a qualifying crime, the judge should be able to set bail if they are a risk of flight or if they are a danger to the community or to a specific individual,” he explained. “Many other states allow judges to consider dangerousness when setting bail. New York should do the same. This may be particularly necessary in domestic violence cases, where the risk of reprisal by the perpetrator against the victim is high.”
Less than a week after those provisions took effect, a prominent Democrat is calling for an evaluation of the reforms. New York Attorney General Letitia James expressed a few concerns with the implementation of bail reform measures, while addressing media in Rochester at an event. “ “There have been some individuals that have unfortunately been released under the new bail reform,” she said. “It’s critically important that the legislature take into consideration that safety should be the first priority.” She didn’t cite specific changes, and it’s unclear if there’s interest at the legislative level to address the changes Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed for in 2019.