Amid a spike in hate crimes in New York City, many Jews are worried that a new “no bail” law might make their neighborhoods more dangerous. They are calling on politicians to reverse the policy — and lawmakers are listening.
The new law, which went into effect Jan. 1, bars judges from setting bail on misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, even when those charges are listed as hate crimes.
Hasidic Jews, hungry to see concrete steps from politicians and city officials to address violent assaults on identifiably Jewish people, say that the rule is a step backward.
“We are sensitive to the need for bail reform in certain cases,” said Chaskel Bennett, the co-founder of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition and an activist in the Orthodox world. “But tying judges’ hands on hate crimes in the current atmosphere of threats against Jewish communities, and particularly Orthodox Jewish citizens, seems to be a bridge too far.”
The cash bail policy is part of a package of criminal justice reform laws passed by the Democratically-controlled New York state legislature in April 2019. Civil liberties groups and public defense service providers supported the reforms, as did progressive Democrats, particularly Mike Gianaris and Carl Heastie, who represent districts in New York City.
The changes came as criminal justice reform became a major political issue nationwide, championed by figures such as Kim Kardashian-West and Jared Kushner. The New York reforms, though introduced by liberals, received endorsements from moderates as well, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The new policies came in a year when New York City saw hate crimes against Jews increase by 20% over 2018. Two recent attacks — a machete attack in Monsey, which left one man in a potentially permanent coma, and a shooting in Jersey City that killed two Hasidic Jews — have dramatically heightened fear and concern of further anti-Semitic violence.
Previously a progressive pipe dream, eliminating cash bail received more support in recent years due to the case of Kalief Browder, who was held in the infamous Rikers Island jail complex for three years, including two years in solitary confinement, after he was accused of stealing a backpack. His bail was set at $2,000, which his family could not afford. He was released after prosecutors dropped the case, but had endured severe mental suffering while locked up. He killed himself in 2015, at age 22.
Proponents of ending cash bail argue that the bail system makes poverty a crime. An American Civil Liberties Union report analyzing arrests in eight upstate New York counties over a four-year period found that of over 45,000 people who spent at least one week in jail ahead of their trial, one-fifth had had their bail amounts set at just $500.
What’s more, people who have spent time in jail, even for short periods, become more likely to commit other crimes, said Nicole Triplett, a policy counsel at the New York chapter of the ACLU who worked on the criminal justice reform rules.
“If we want to deal with the root causes of crime, and the root causes of what threatens people’s safety, then we need to dismantle the policies that have driven mass incarceration and mass criminalization,” she told the Forward.
But a recent case of an assault on Hasidic Jews has galvanized many in the Jewish world, as well as a growing number of politicians, to alter the new laws.
On the fifth night of Hanukkah in December, Tiffany Harris slapped three women in quick succession in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighborhood with a large Hasidic population. It was one of at least eight anti-Semitic incidents in the city over the holiday.
“After she said ‘F you Jews,’ she rattled off a bunch of other incoherent stuff,” Dalia Shusterman, one of the alleged victims, told the Forward a week after the incident. “She obviously had some mental issues.”
No one was seriously injured, and police quickly arrested Harris, whose lawyer said she likely has an as-yet undiagnosed psychiatric disorder. But in anticipation of the new cash bail rules soon going into effect, the judge who saw her released her shortly after.
A day later, Harris allegedly punched another person in Brooklyn. After she was arrested and released for that incident, she was arrested a third time for allegedly skipping a meeting with a social worker. (Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said that his office directly intervened in the case, to ensure that Harris would be sent for a psychiatric evaluation after her third arrest.)
Hasidic Jews and Jewish groups have pointed to this incident as evidence that violent assaults against them are not being taken seriously.
“People are panicking, people feel frightened,” said Chaim Deutsch, a New York City councilman who represents a Brooklyn district with a large Hasidic population. “When they see someone like Tiffany Harris is released on bail, and got released only to go assault someone again, it sends the wrong message.”
Deutsch is circulating an open letter to Cuomo criticizing the new criminal justice reforms. Simcha Eichenstein, a state assemblyman who also represents a Brooklyn district, plans to introduce legislation that would remove all hate crime charges from the list of crimes that judges cannot set bail for. Deutsch told the Forward he supports Eichenstein’s legislation.
Concern for the repercussions of the bail reforms is growing among politicians. Cuomo has said he wants to reconsider the rules. Even progressives like Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the New York State Senate majority leader, has signalled her willingness to look at the rules again.
Proponents of the reforms say that there is wide misunderstanding about how they work.
It’s true that under the new cashless bail rule, judges cannot set bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, including 17 hate crime charges. Judges must release defendants in such cases, regardless of their record, though they are able to issue court orders for in-hospital psychiatric evaluations if the defendant exhibits signs of mental illness, as well as mandate pre-trial supervision and travel restrictions.
Yet in Brooklyn, where the majority of assaults of identifiably Jewish people have taken place, very few people have been held on bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies over the past several years, according to Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, a nonprofit public defense provider, which is representing Harris. Over 90% of people released without bail show up to their court hearing, Schreibersdorf said.
Additionally, as many as two-thirds of the offenders in assaults on Jews in New York City are juveniles. The family court system, which was not affected by the new bail rules, handles those cases.
Many of the assaults on Orthodox Jews, charged as misdemeanors, have fallen into a tricky gray area: They are frightening, but do not cause lasting physical harm, and represent a small number of assaults overall.
“The smacking of strangers in the street is troubling,” Schreibersdorf said. “But most of these misdemeanor assaults are happening between people who know each other: domestic violence and bar fights.”
Schreibersdorf, who is Jewish, said that setting cash bail for such offenses runs against both American and Talmudic ideals of considering someone innocent until proven guilty.
“It’s upsetting to me that my Jewish community is using the false premise of anti-Semitism to justify people going to jail right after they’ve been arrested, but before anything has been proven,” she said.
While other Jewish groups are urging a reconsideration of the bail law, some are going even further, suggesting that New York end bail for hate crimes entirely, meaning that anyone arrested for a hate crime would have no chance of leaving jail before their trial. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt endorsed that idea in a recent interview.
“If you commit a hate crime, if you attack an elderly person because he’s wearing a black hat, if you physically assault someone because of the way they pray, there should be no bail for you,” he told the Times of Israel.
The ADL is currently considering what kind of legislative and policy proposals to make on cash bail, according to Evan Bernstein, the organization’s regional director for New York and New Jersey.
Ezra Friedlander, a Hasidic political consultant and lobbyist, agreed with Greenblatt. He noted that the Hasidic community generally supports criminal justice reform - in recent years, Hasidic groups raised millions for lobbying efforts by a Skverer Hasidic lobbyist, Moshe Margareten, who pushed hard for Kushner’s federal prison reform bill.
“But if you’re arrested for a hate crime, no, you should be locked up until your trial,” Friedlander said. “There should be no bail set, period, no difference if you’re poor or rich.”
At least one progressive Jewish group, Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, have voiced their opposition to the backlash against the cash bail reforms.
“We cannot and will not allow our community’s pain and fear to be weaponized in opposition to the new bail reform laws,” the group said in a statement posted to social media. They suggested that addressing economic and homelessness — many of the recent assailants of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn have been homeless — is more effective in combatting the attacks.
OUR STATEMENT: New York Jews stand firmly behind the new #BailReform laws. We will not allow our community’s pain & fear to be weaponized.#SafetyInSolidarity#JewishAndProud#NoHateNoFear#StandTogetherpic.twitter.com/RVLqWd3K6I— Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (@JFREJNYC) January 5, 2020
Deutsch, the New York City councilman, suggested that the intense feelings within the Orthodox world about cash bail, coming just as the law is being implemented, might have been avoided if state legislators had already created strong anti-hate crime bills.
“Why are we protecting people who are being let out and committing the same crimes again, before protecting the citizens of this city?” he said.