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Research Aims to Illuminate the Impact of New York’s Sweeping Bail Reform

Arnold Ventures is committing $5.5 million to help four expert organizations document how statewide changes to the criminal justice system are implemented — and how effective they are — amid a challenging landscape.

A reform bill signed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo makes ambitious changes to the state's pretrial justice system, and a project led by the National Partnership for Pretrial Justice will document how the reforms play out. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed one of the most ambitious criminal justice reform bills in the country. The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, addresses a variety of criminal justice issues, including a sweeping overhaul of pretrial practices across the state: It mandates that police officers issue desk appearance tickets rather than arresting defendants for low-level offenses, requires judges to release nearly all misdemeanor and nonviolent felony defendants without bail before trial, requires prosecutors to turn over discovery within 15 days of arraignment, and mandates that prosecutors give the accused access to the details of their case (full discovery) before withdrawing any plea offers. Taken together, the reforms are projected to reduce New York’s jail population by as much as 40 percent, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

The law’s potential to transform the state’s pretrial system has justice advocates in New York and around the country eager to see the policy in action.


Amount by which New York’s jail population is projected to be reduced thanks to criminal justice reforms in the state

Arnold Ventures is committing $5,549,367 to support four expert organizations — CUNY’s Institute for State and Local Governance (ISLG), the Vera Institute of Justice, the Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ), and the New York City Criminal Justice Agency (CJA) — to conduct research on the effectiveness of the bail reform law. The grantees will be providing support and technical assistance, collecting up-to-date information for agencies and overall helping jurisdictions understand how the new systems are functioning.

These efforts, a project of the National Partnership for Pretrial Justice, will be critical to documenting the reform’s implementation as lawmakers and criminal justice observers from across the country watch this unique scenario unfold. The legislation stipulated some challenging demands: It gave local jurisdictions less than nine months to develop new policies and practices and provided no funding. By comparison, New Jersey’s 2014 reform bill allocated two years and nearly $15 million to help the state implement the changes.

There are 62 counties in New York State, and each will have to decide how to operationalize the legislation,” said Jennifer Ferone, Associate Research Director at ISLG. It’s a massive undertaking, especially since jurisdictions will have to use their existing resources.”

Differences Between New York and New Jersey Bail Reform

While they’re only divided by the Hudson River, New York and New Jersey are a world apart on their statewide pretrial reform bills. 

Approach: New York will use a charge-based approach to pretrial release decisions rather than New Jersey’s risk-based approach, which relies on a public safety assessment tool. Under the law, New York judges must release without bail almost all defendants arrested for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies rather than conducting individualized risk assessments.

Funding: New Jersey provided $15 million to help jurisdictions implement the reforms. New York’s law does not provide any funding.

Data collection: New Jersey required all courts to submit data to a centralized system for collection and evaluation. New York’s law requires counties to submit data to the state Office of Court Administration, something that only nine of the state’s 62 counties currently do. Data collection is complicated in New York by the fact that many counties rely on a network of small town and village courts that meet irregularly to make pretrial release decisions.

Pretrial services: New Jersey created a new pretrial services unit with trained staff in all 15 counties. New York is providing no coordination, support, or training for the state’s pretrial service providers. At the time of the law’s passage, many New York counties had minimal pretrial services infrastructure.

Implementation date: New Jersey gave its courts over two years to prepare to implement the reforms, while New York provided just eight months between the law’s passage and its effective date of Jan. 12020.

Arnold Ventures’ work joins a network of organizations, nonprofits, and municipalities that are stepping up as the state changes its pretrial system. For example, in New York City, local officials are investing about $116 million per year to expand its successful Supervised Release program, which helps people return to court. The city will also spend millions on another program, called Atlas,” that will offer need-based services such as housing assistance, mentoring services, job training, and family counseling.

However, beyond the five boroughs, large stretches of rural New York lack built-in resources and support that can help implement the pretrial reforms. That size and diversity makes New York a national model for how to set up such reforms for success.

New York is important as a laboratory to test whether these reforms can work elsewhere, so the stakes are really high,” said Aubrey Fox, Executive Director of CJA

Arnold Ventures is dedicated to eliminating unjust pretrial detention and promoting rigorous research methods nationwide. Jeremy Travis, Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures, believes the work ISLG, Vera Institute, DCJ, and CJA plan to do will help decision makers in New York understand how the reforms function in urban and rural areas alike.

Given the scope of bail reform in New York State, it is critically important that the public understand the impact of these reforms at the individual, system, and community levels,” said Travis. Arnold Ventures is pleased to support this suite of research projects that will illuminate these reforms.”

While New York City may receive plenty of media attention, policymakers in other states will probably be watching implementation in rural areas, smaller cities, and suburban jurisdictions. The challenge of bail reform in jurisdictions with limited resources will be a common reality for many other states.

New York is important as a laboratory to test whether these reforms can work elsewhere, so the stakes are really high.
Aubrey Fox Executive Director of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency

Most counties in New York rely on a network of town and village courts to process misdemeanors and preliminary stages of felonies. These courts are informal, sometimes meeting just twice a month and overseen by part-time judges who aren’t required to have law degrees. Because the state doesn’t keep centralized records for these local courts, what happens in a lot of these places is almost invisible,” explains Alissa Worden, a Senior Research Fellow the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, Inc., an Arnold Ventures grantee (in collaboration with DCJ). These are places that are often very remote, with low population density, no public transportation, and very tight local budgets.” 

Erie County in western New York, for instance, has 36 separate local courts, each with its own pretrial release practices. 

These town and village courts aren’t unique to New York — around 20 other states have similar judicial systems. 

Local courts doing local business is actually what things look like across much of the country,” said Insha Rahman, Director of Strategy and New Initiatives at Vera Institute. One of the biggest challenges right now is that if two people are charged with the same crime, the outcome can depend on which court you’re arrested in, which judge you come in front of, which DA happens to be requesting bail. How do we make sure there is truly equal justice?”

CJA, an Arnold Ventures grantee, will be working in these rural areas. CJA is a government-funded nonprofit that handles pretrial services for New York City. The grant will allow the agency to share its expertise with other jurisdictions around the state. 

Pretrial service agencies will have a lot of new responsibilities under the new law, and they’re not particularly strong in many counties,” said CJA’s Fox. 

For example, the law requires that defendants be reminded of their court date by text message, phone call, or first-class mail — a service that CJA has provided for years in New York City but that most of the state’s other courts aren’t equipped for. 

Arnold Ventures grantees will also be looking at how key metrics — the number of desk appearance tickets issued, pretrial release rates, court appearance rates, crime rates — change under the new law. Critics of the law have predicted that letting more defendants out without cash bail will increase non-appearance and new-offense rates despite the fact this didn’t happen in states that have already implemented bail reform. Other policymakers contemplating their own reforms are looking to New York to see if the trend remains consistent. Researchers will also look at regional variations in those statistics to determine whether certain jurisdictions are having more success implementing the reforms than others, and why. 

Erica Bond, Chief Policy Strategist at DCJ, said her organization has already started to provide the public with estimates of how these reforms may take shape once they are implemented on Jan. 1, 2020. DCJ recently published a research brief estimating that, had the 2020 bails reforms been in place in 2018, approximately 20,000 additional New York City cases would have resulted in release without money bail (and approximately $200 million in bail had been set in those cases). DCJ will be working in close collaboration with researchers from the Finn Institute to closely study the impacts of the criminal justice reforms across New York State and plans to publish annual reports covering implementation of the reforms in 2020 and 2021

Arnold Ventures New York State Grants

Data Collaborative for Justice and John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety
Term: 3 years, 6 months
Grant: $1,991,646

DCJ will study the impacts of New York’s 2020 criminal justice reforms using data from all criminal courts in New York City, Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk counties, as well 54 upstate city courts. DCJ will also partner with the Finn Institute to produce research on the impacts of the reforms in six upstate counties that process many criminal cases through town and village courts, which are not well-represented in statewide data repositories. DCJ’s reports will address changes in the use of Desk Appearance Tickets (DATs), pretrial release decisions (including the use of money bail), case processing times, arrest patterns and the New York City jail population before and after implementation of New York’s pretrial reforms.

CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance
Term: 3 years, 2 months
Grant: $1,163,252

ISLG will study the implementation of bail reform legislation on 13 jurisdictions. ISLG’s evaluation will provide critical insights into the kinds of operational policies and procedures that need to be in place in order to perpetuate the best outcomes for people involved with the criminal justice system.

Vera Institute of Justice
Term: 3 years, 6 months
Grant: $1,801,345

Vera will study the impact of the bail reform legislation with a focus on upstate, central, and western New York. The research will examine the law’s impact on jail populations statewide and will include site-based research in 6 counties outside of New York City to measure the law’s impact on pretrial release decisions, including supervision conditions, ability to pay, and racial and ethnic disparities.

New York Criminal Justice Agency
Term: 2 years
Grant: $593,124

The NYCJA is a government-funded nonprofit that provides pretrial services to New York City’s five boroughs. It will draw on its expertise to help the state’s 57 other counties develop similarly robust pretrial service programs through a collaboration with the New York Association of Pretrial Services Agencies.


Arnold Ventures funds projects to understand problems and identify policy solutions.