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Experts: The new bail law must be repealed

After new legislation recently eliminated cash bail for mostly nonviolent crimes in New York, lawmakers and top law enforcement officials are calling for its repeal.

Under the new law, those arrested for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies are given a desk appearance ticket rather than face a judge for an arraignment, where bail is traditionally set.

According to Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon, 301 inmates were released in Suffolk County in the month leading up to the enactment of the new law. Those individuals would typically have been held on bail or bond, depending on their criminal history and the severity of the offense.

Mr. Toulon, a Democrat, issued a statement last week calling for amendment or repeal of the law. “There are clearly serious issues with this state law,” he said, using as examples four inmates released from county jail facilities who have a history of recidivism. 

The released inmates, the sheriff said, include 23-year-old Lonnie Pernell of Centerport, who was reportedly “in and out” of the Yaphank Correctional Facility five times in November and December for first-degree criminal contempt. Despite re-offending several times, Mr. Pernell was released on his own recognizance under the statutes of the new law. Dwayne Ross, 46, of Shirley posted bond in early December for second-degree strangulation and was arrested again two weeks later on a criminal contempt charge, the sheriff’s office said.

Mr. Toulon also pointed out that the new law permits the courts to accept partially secured bail bonds through the court system instead of securing the funds through a bail bondsman.

Fidel Portillo, 39, of El Salvador had been held on $200,000 bail and $400,000 bond since July 2019 for first-degree rape and first-degree sexual conduct with a child but was released Dec. 30 after posting 10% of his bond and surrendering his passport, according to Sheriff Toulon. Mr. Portillo is due back in court Jan. 14. 

Dwayne Robinson, 33, of Amityville, described by Mr. Toulon as an alleged Bloods gang member, was also released after posting $5,000 bond for a second-degree assault charge.

In each of these cases, Sheriff Toulon said that, in the past, judges could have used this information as a guideline to set bail or remand the defendant to be held without bail. “Judges must have discretion to determine bail based on a criminal defendant’s likelihood to re-offend and cause further pain to his or her victims and the public at large,” the sheriff said.

The sheriff also took issue with some of the crimes that are considered “nonviolent” under the new law. They include third-degree assault, aggravated vehicular homicide, second-degree manslaughter, arson, criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds and criminal possession of a firearm and promoting or possessing an obscene sexual performance by a child.

Mr. Toulon noted that the new bail reform laws keep many defendants from using services available to the incarcerated, from human trafficking help for victims to addiction programs, therapy and education. 

Back in Albany for the start of the 2020 legislative session, Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr.(I-Sag Harbor), who was a sponsor of the bill, said, “While there is certainly merit in creating a more equitable criminal justice system, I believe it is important that judges have discretion in determining whether bail, bond or pre-trial detention is needed for serious criminal offenses.”

Shelter Justice Court Clerk Nancy Kotula said the court has had to return some bail to defendants but there’s no one in custody on the Island affected by the new bail law.

Police Chief Jim Read described the new law as “too broad in scope,” adding that while some changes were warranted, the new law takes away the discretion of judges.

It could have been done in steps rather than to cover so many offenses, the chief said.

He noted that while it hasn’t been the case on Shelter Island, there are places where people released without bail committed other crimes within 24 hours of their release.

Proponents of the new law say that the traditional bail system has morphed into a way to keep poorer Americans and people of color incarcerated, even if they are ultimately found to be innocent in court.

Judges may still use cash bail and detain those who commit violent felonies including sexual misconduct offenses and domestic incidents. In some instances, judges can opt for non-monetary ways to ensure court appearance, such as electronic monitoring or the supervision of a pretrial services agency.