Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder convened a news conference on Jan. 13 to make a point: The state’s bail reform law, enacted in January 2020, needs further reform — specifically, he seemed to suggest, for charges of illegal gun possession.
Right now, an offender who is in possession of an illegal firearm can be released without bail. That wasn’t the case before January 2020, when judges had the discretion to hold such suspects on bail.
The 2020 bail reform law, however, essentially states that these offenders can get out of jail free while waiting to make a plea or go to trial, provided they haven’t shot anyone. (Violent crimes are eligible for bail.)
At the new Nassau County Police Department Academy, a shiny white building that rises out of a back field at Nassau Community College in Garden City, Ryder displayed eight illegal handguns last Thursday, all seized by police during car stops since the start of the year. He noted that Nassau had already had eight gun arrests this year, compared with only two in the same time frame in 2021.
Whether there were more illegal guns in circulation in the county at the start of the year, or police were out looking for them more ardently, was unclear.
Asked by the Herald, Ryder did not say whether he believed the bail reform law should be nixed, and the news conference ended abruptly shortly afterward. “Bail reform,” Ryder said, “is important . . . It needs to be fixed.”
We agree that judges should have the discretion to assign bail in cases of illegal gun possession. Ryder ticked off a list of eight defendants, all of whom face possession charges and all of whom were released without bail.
We can’t say what, if anything, any of these defendants might have done or not done with these weapons if police hadn’t discovered them. We can say, however, that any illegal gun represents the potential for violence.
Most crimes are not committed with guns, according to the FBI. Most gun crimes (more than 65 percent in New York), however, are committed with illegal handguns. Judges should have the discretion to set bail in cases of illegal gun possession, particularly cases when a defendant has a long record of arrest and prosecution.
This is not to suggest that bail reform must be overturned, as so many conservatives suggest. It simply requires further adjustment.
Clearly, there is, in Nassau County at least, a high degree of electoral support for doing away with bail reform. New District Attorney Anne Donnelly, a Republican, made it a cornerstone of her campaign last fall, running numerous TV commercials suggesting that violent criminals are being released from jail onto our streets. That, in large part, explains her defeat of State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, the Democratic candidate for the post, who was, at one point, considered the favorite.
New County Executive Bruce Blakeman, also a Republican, wants bail reform repealed as well. He said so in his inaugural speech, arguing, “Criminals have more rights than victims. Enough is enough.”
That was hyperbole, but there is a definite public perception among many that criminals have been prioritized over victims. Further tweaking the law to ensure that judges can assign bail to those caught with illegal guns would go a long way toward changing people’s minds.
That’s important. Bail reform remains a critical piece of legislation in the State Legislature’s recent efforts to ensure social justice for all, including in the criminal justice system.
Here’s what we wrote in a December 2019 editorial:
”The new law will allow most defendants who are charged with nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors to be released after their arraignment without having to make bail. Hardliners have argued against the new law, saying it will allow thousands of potential offenders onto our streets, where they could continue their criminal ways.
“News flash: Any one of these offenders could have been on the streets in the past, if only they had had the cash to make bail, but they didn’t, so they stayed locked up. Meanwhile, if you were affluent enough to afford bail, you got out of jail, and were free to carry on with your life with your family — and potentially earn a living.”
The previous system favored wealthy over poor offenders, who were, according to statistics, most often Black or Latino. We thus urge our legislators to continue tweaking the bail-reform law, without doing away with it.