Is New York’s bail reform actually behind an increase in violence in Rochester?

Local News

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — With the alarming number of shootings Rochester has seen this year many people seem to point to bail reform as the cause.

The criminal justice reform laws took effect in New York in early 2020. In general, they focus on removing or limiting the use of cash bail against defendants who are accused of misdemeanors or nonviolent offenses.

Though some law enforcement agencies have attributed these bail reform laws to the rise in violence we have seen this year in Rochester, Monroe County Public Defender Erik Teifke says there’s no clear evidence to support that. 

“The public is scared and they are concerned and I can understand that, but they are being misled. Something is being pitched to them as the reason and there is no evidence to support that,” Teifke said. Teifke works as a Second Assistant Public Defender at Monroe County’s Public Defender’s Office.

Data shows crime has increased in cities across the country, not just those with bail reform measures. According to a report from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, out of the 66 largest police jurisdictions, most saw an increase of violent crimes in 2020. 

“Crime had gone up in 63 of the 66 cities across the country. The vast majority of those cities, were ones in states that had no recent reforms to their bail statues,” Teifke said. 

Teifke also said blaming bail reform wouldn’t make sense based on past trends of crime in the city. 

“There’s been spikes in violent crime throughout our history and we have not had a real, hearty effort at bail reform, so how do you explain the prior spikes if it’s bail reform … because bail reform wasn’t in existence then?” Teifke said. 

He instead points to the pandemic and the economic turmoil that has come with it as a better explanation for the violence.

“The evidence does show when people are jobless and hopeless, they have too much time on their hands and they are desperate and they can’t succeed using lawful means and an unlawful means presents itself, they might take that option,” Teifke said. 

However, many police departments, including Rochester’s, say some offenders who have been let out do end up committing violent crimes.  

Last month, Chief Harriott-Sullivan with the Rochester Police Department, announced she was bringing in federal assistance to help with the city’s gun violence. 

The chief said data shows a high percentage of offenders are released on criminal possession of weapon charges or were out on low bail. She says the system needs a reboot. 

“My focus here is on violent offenders with a gun violence history that get arrested more than once and that like I said I want them in jail and I want them to stay there,” said Chief Herriott-Sullivan. “Judges have to follow certain processes I get it, but my feeling is, however, we have this structured, we just have to do something different.”

On Wednesday, the city announced a new federal task force to combat the surge in gun violence. One part of the 60-day plan is to focus efforts on using federal powers to arrest some of these repeat offenders.  

“That’s why we are making enhanced use of these federal statues and federal prosecutions so we can try to break that cycle of people being arrested and rearrested and released and rearrested. We get them arrested and we want to hold them,” said U.S. Attorney James Kennedy. “The good citizens of Rochester, especially those living in our most violent neighborhoods, are entitled to feel safe in their homes and in their neighborhoods, and they should not be forced to live behind bars while criminals are given freedom to roam the streets.”

Teifke said while some offenders who are released make end up committing serious crimes, he says the majority do not. 

“We represent thousands and thousands and thousands of people every year, and there are no shortage of people that you can see would have two years ago had their entire lives ruined and this year they got to get out, they are home, they are at work, back going to class and showing up to their next court date, sure enough, and the world didn’t end and it worked,” Teifke said. 

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