Bail reform debate touches on accusations of racism on a Facebook page 

The fight over recently enacted bail reform heated up at the Capitol on Tuesday, with dueling events by police and activists that at times centered on charges of racism surrounding a Facebook page that calls for the law to be repealed.

Republican lawmakers and law enforcement groups went first. Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan was joined by hundreds of police in blue uniforms, lined up in rows on the pink sandstone steps of the State Capitol’s grand staircase.

“You are less safe today than you were six months ago,” Flanagan said.

Most forms of cash bail for nonviolent crimes ended on January 1. Sheriff Jeff Murphy of Washington County recited incidents from around the state where repeat offenders were set free after arrest until their next court date, including two serial bank robbers and a man accused of second-degree manslaughter.

“We feared that it would bring danger to communities, and that’s exactly what has happened,” Murphy said.
On the other side of the Capitol, supporters of the changes held their own rally. They accused Republicans and the law enforcement groups of cherry-picking negative cases while ignoring what they said is the larger number of people charged with nonviolent crimes who have been able to hold on to their jobs and responsibilities for their families while awaiting their court date.

Sen. Jessica Ramos said wealthy people have always avoided being detained in jail because they had the means to make bail.

“The bail system was not keeping anyone safe,” Ramos said. “It was just keeping the poor away from the rich.”
Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz said supporters also believe in the rule of law. She said she was a crime victim and wanted to see the perpetrator justly punished. Cruz and others see the issue of race behind the bail reform opponents’ stance.

“They don’t give a damn about our community,” Cruz said. “What they want is to continue to put black and brown folk and poor white folk (in jail).

“What they want is to pit us against each other,” Cruz continued.

Murphy and others in law enforcement began a Facebook page called Repeal Bail Reform that now has over 165,000 members. The page has become controversial, though, because some of those who posted comments were found to be associated with white supremacy groups. The story was first reported in City & State magazine.

Marie Ndiaye with the Legal Aid Society spoke at the pro-bail reform rally and is among those upset about that connection.

“Any rollback of this law is capitulation to white supremacy,” Ndiaye said.

Murphy and others said they intend to continue the page.

Assembly Republican Minority Leader Will Barclay, who also attended the law enforcement rally, said afterward that those who want bail reform amended or repealed are solidly against racism. But, he said, the group can’t be responsible for everyone who posts on a public forum.

“Obviously, we are not condoning any comments on that Facebook that aren’t within the bounds of decency and right,” Barclay said. “We are focused like a laser on bail reform. We’re not going to let the advocates distract from the real issues here.”

And he said the sheriff is trying to police the comments.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first African American woman to lead the Senate, said she wishes her Republican colleagues would go further in speaking out against any forms of white supremacy or racism.

“I was a bit disappointed that there was no denouncement of hate-filled rhetoric,” Stewart-Cousins said.

But the Senate leader stopped short of saying that they should stop their association with the page, saying only that she hopes they do what they think is right.

Stewart-Cousins said the Senate will not be repealing bail reform, but she’s open to separating “fact from fiction” and looking at some reasonable changes.

Karen DeWitt is Albany correspondent for WXXI News.
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