Legislators May Have Made Treating Addictions That Much More Difficult

Have legislators in Albany just erected a massive road block to treating the opioid scourge in Chautauqua County by eliminating bail for low-level drug offenses?

It is entirely possible.

Consider these hypothetical situations.

Someone with an addiction issue is arrested on a low-level charge and taken to their county jail in lieu of a small amount of bail. Unable to post bail, with the help of medication available at the jail and a little bit of time, the addict realizes they need help to rid themselves of their addiction. The addict volunteers to attend Drug Court and is released from jail without paying bail on the condition that the addict continues with treatment programs. In this circumstance, the inability to post bail has actually been a benefit to both a person and to the community by helping someone realize they need help.

Without bail, or the threat of time in jail, we wonder if people will still see a drug arrest as a wake-up call.

That’s a fear that David Soares, Albany County district attorney, shared with state legislators during testimony in January.

“I also need to point out the possible impact on drug courts. The way drug courts work right now is that defendants are held on bail and given the option of drug court or jail,” Soares told legislators. “If everyone gets presumptive release on drug cases nobody will go to drug court. We need to carefully examine how we treat drug crimes under any new bail proposal. I know I don’t have to tell you how bad the opioid crisis is in our State. Drug courts around have been very successful in helping individuals get the services they need and stay clean.”

We hope Soares’ prediction doesn’t come true. Drug courts are a well-used tool in Chautauqua County and, around the country, are proven to reduce recidivism among addicts.

Consider, too, the revolving door through the Chautauqua County Jail in which someone is charged, posts quick bail and is back on the streets offending again. The phenomenon happens regularly and is true of low-level dealers who are often charged with crimes other than drug dealing. Bail reform is likely to allow low-level users back onto the streets even more quickly than before. Alaska implemented a comprehensive criminal reform bill in 2016 that placed defendants into pretrial services after a risk assessment was performed. Later dubbed “catch and release,” Alaska’s governor asked for change to the system in 2018 and then pushed tougher reforms to the legislation in January.

It is already frustrating to both police officers and the public, in a system that currently includes cash bail, how quickly some people are back on the streets and offending again. When it comes to drugs, it is important to allow police to establish at least some sort of deterrent effect by making dealers spend a little time in jail before they are allowed back on the streets. Those dealers may see the error of their ways, perhaps turning to treatment alternatives. It is possible bail reform eliminates both the deterrence of policing and the incentive of a stint in jail making a low-level dealer rethink their path in life.

Bail reform, as a concept, is not a bad idea. Bail reform as it has been approved in New York very likely may be a bad idea. Democrats in Albany can’t say they weren’t warned about the issues with the law as it is written. David Soares, himself a Democrat who is described as a progressive, warned legislators in pretty stark terms about the flaws in the bail reform legislation. They chose not to listen. If it turns out that New York follows Alaska’s “catch and release” example or, even worse, that counties find out addicts aren’t finding their way into treatment, we hope state legislators will use their heads and rewrite the law.