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The release of a mentally ill man charged with hate crimes will test controversial new bail law

A man charged with committing anti-Semitic hate crimes is free after a year in jail awaiting trial, due to a new law that bans cash bail for certain offenses. Orthodox Jews say the law, intended to keep poor people from remaining locked up simply because they cannot afford bail, is the wrong move at a time of rising hate incidents against Jews.

Police charged James Polite with arson in November 2018 after finding him at the scene of a fire in a Brooklyn yeshiva.

Polite’s case is similar in a key way to that of Tiffany Harris, who slapped three Jewish women in succession in Brooklyn last month: Both he and Harris struggle with mental illness.

Harris quickly came to symbolize what Orthodox Jews saw as a flaw in the bail law, because she was released shortly after her arrest for the slaps, only to be arrested again for punching another person in Brooklyn a day later. She was released a second time, and then arrested for allegedly failing to meet with a social worker.

But Polite’s case points to how the new bail law may help rehabilitate people who are mentally ill and have committed hate crimes.

His case has been transferred to Brooklyn’s mental health court, which will allow him to have access to long-term treatment services and programs, according to a statement from The Legal Aid Society, which is representing Polite.

“This is a sensible resolution that uses the city’s resources in a smart and effective way,” the organization said in a statement.

Polite’s arrest came amid rising anti-Semitic incidents in New York City, and his release comes as outrage over assaults on identifiably Jewish people in the region has intensified. Within the past two months, a shooting in Jersey City that left two Hasidic Jews and two others dead and a machete attack in the Hasidic haven of Monsey, New York, have deepened fear and panic among Orthodox Jews.

Polite was raised in the foster system, and struggled with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and drug dependency. At age 21 he was adopted by Jewish foster parents, and he later graduated from Brandeis University.

But Polite struggled with his medication regimen, according to news reports. Police arrested him after finding him at the scene of a small fire, which was set in the yeshiva’s coat room. Investigators then recognized him from security footage in which he could be seen drawing anti-Semitic messages in marker on the wall of another temple in the borough, including phrases like “Die Jew Rats” and “Hitler.”

“The actions he is accused of break my heart and devastate all of us who tried to help him get on solid footing over the years,” Christine Quinn, a former speaker of the New York City Council, and for whom Polite interned, said in a statement at the time. “And while he has experienced hardship that most people can’t ever imagine, his actions are inexcusable.”

After his arrest, Polite was held in Rikers Island, the jail complex where most defendants in New York City await trial, and which the City Council voted last year to close. In October, his case was transferred to Brooklyn’s mental health court.

He was released Tuesday after a judge dismissed the top two charges in his case — arson charges that alleged he was aware there were other people in the building in which he was starting fires. Without those counts, the remaining charges against him fell under the purview of the new bail law, which requires judges to release people arrested for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, even if they charged as hate crimes.

The Legal Aid Society declined to specify what kind of supervision Polite will be under, citing privacy issues. A foster parent for Polite declined to comment. (He is, however, under supervision — Harris was not at the time of her alleged assaults.)

The new cash bail law is the focus of considerable frustration and outrage among Hasidic Jews and in the broader Jewish world.

Some Jewish leaders, such as the Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt, say that the way to make sure what happened with Harris never happens again is to end bail for all hate crime charges, meaning that anyone accused of a hate crime would be automatically held in jail through their trial.

Harris, who was homeless at the time of the assaults, was eventually ordered to psychiatric observation after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio intervened in her case. She is currently in a psychiatric facility, according to Lisa Schreibersdorf, one of her lawyers.

But Schreibersdorf said that the first judge to see Harris could have ordered her to a psychiatric institution for observation, and still would have been able to do so under the new bail rule. It’s not clear why the judge did not do so, she said. It remains to be seen whether the new bail rule will encourage judges to consider sending defendants to psychiatric evaluation in cases where it appears warranted.

Now that Polite is out of jail, he will have access to mental health services that would not be available if he were still being held at Rikers.

The bail reform rule, by allowing mentally ill defendants to seek treatment and access support networks ahead of their trial, should drive down recidivism and makes communities safer, according to Elena Weissmann, the executive director of the Bronx Freedom Fund.

Weissmann, who is Orthodox herself, said that she empathizes with people in the Orthodox world who are concerned for their safety. But she said that the new policy will help prevent people from being criminalized for their poverty, while people who can afford to pay their bail get to go free before their trial.

“I do get the pain and the fear,” she said. “But I also really intimately understand what happens with the system of wealth-based detention, which is our cash bail system. And I know that one really has nothing to do with the other.”

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman


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