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Opinion | Democrats are feeding a toxic narrative about their own criminal justice policies

Bail reform has been one of the most significant public policy achievements in recent American history. Research from places including New York, where state  legislators voted to end cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies starting in 2020, tells the story of this success. Yet too many Democrats are running away from the issue while pushing the narrative that it’s a toxic development that cost the party seats in the midterms.

New York City has remained secure even though headlines could make you think otherwise. The Big Apple is one of the safest cities in the U.S.

Despite police, county executives and national pundits falsely labeling bail reform a disaster, in the few places like New York state that have tried it, bail reform has been a win for freedom. It has allowed tens of thousands of people to fight their charges while keeping their jobs and housing and supporting their loved ones, and the pressure of pretrial detention that all too often pushes people to plead guilty to go home. Bail reform has been a win for fiscal responsibility, saving taxpayers millions of dollars by avoiding the costs of unnecessary mass detention. And bail reform has also proved that you can maximize freedom while not endangering public safety.

Research has established no connection between bail reform and any increase in crime. In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, a legal settlement has prohibited most people charged with low-level offenses from being detained pretrial since 2019. A robust study of hundreds of thousands of cases conducted by the nonpartisan Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice found that when people were released instead of detained pretrial in the county, the likelihood of rearrest over three years actually dropped by more than 6%

At the same time, New York City has remained secure even though headlines could make one think otherwise. The Big Apple is one of the safest cities in the U.S. Of its five boroughs, Staten Island, Manhattan and Queens are among the safest 15 counties in the U.S. Nassau County, which includes western Long Island — where 64 mayors banded together in a misguided call for the repeal of bail reform — has twice since the law’s implementation been ranked the safest place to live in the country by U.S. News and World Report. The county’s own police department found no connection between bail reform and rearrests.

Yet following the midterm elections, many national Democrats blamed the party’s historic New York state congressional losses in the midterms on New York politicians whom they accused of not being tough enough on crime. Several leaders pointed the finger directly at bail reform.

Laura Gillen, a Democrat and fierce opponent of bail reform who lost her Long Island congressional race, took to Twitter to argue that bail reform was a reason Democrats lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives. New York City Mayor Eric Adams wrote an Election Day post-mortem that applauded a Republican Party that “asks the right questions” on public health and safety before seeming to blame bail reform for Democratic losses in the midterms. And a prominent political strategist opined in The New York Times that Democrats lost control of the House because they didn’t cave on bail reform.

But the opposite is true. Democrats lost because they ran from the truth about bail reform, amplifying lies instead of championing what should have been their policy win. In short, they made themselves indistinguishable from Republicans on this topic.

New York Democrats could have used data to educate their constituents about how freedom and public safety can coexist and save money while debunking the rampant fearmongering in the lead-up to the election. They could have pointed to the destabilizing effect the pandemic had on communities — a far more logical explanation for the universal shorter-term rise in some crimes in every corner of America – instead of blaming modest bail reforms. 

But they didn’t. And they lost. Even worse, their continued amplification of right-wing mistruths about the law further entrenches public misperceptions and the desire for greater harshness. 

Other candidates who told the truth about bail reform’s success and stood strong against fearmongering won, including New York State Sen. Michelle Hinchey, whose district was newly reconfigured, who defeated long-serving GOP incumbent Sue Serino; speaker of the State Assembly, Carl Heastie, who defended bail reform and maintained his Democratic supermajority; and Gov. Kathy Hochul, who stood behind the facts on bail reform. The wins extend beyond New York to several races in Illinois, including that of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, as well as in Harris County, Texas.

So why are so many Democrats still choosing to run away from a successful policy? The party seems to still fear the “soft on crime” attacks of the 1980s and 1990s. But the times have changed. For starters, demographics are shifting. People under 30, who are often motivated by candidates who promise to address racial injustice, climate change and reproductive rights, continue to show up at the polls in droves.  And increased knowledge about the criminal legal system, thanks to social media, scholarly work, litigation, massive social movements and the work of activists across the country, has altered public perceptions of crime and punishment.

We are at a critical juncture. The truth about bail reform isn’t just a political game — it is a moral imperative. Public opinion may all too often be driven by fear instead of  facts, but that isn’t a reason for politicians to ignore them. It’s essential to stand behind them.

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