Zeldin attack sparks debate on cash bail

The debate around cash bail reform is drawing renewed focus following the initial quick release of the man who accosted Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) at a recent campaign event.

Zeldin’s accused attacker, 43-year-old David Jakubonis, was at first held for only six hours before being released on his own recognizance — a standard practice in New York, which adop­ted a law ending cash bail for most misde­mean­ors and nonvi­ol­ent felon­ies in 2019. 

Jakubonis, an Army veteran, was later arrested on a federal assault charge and faces up to 10 years in prison.

Nonetheless, the incident has reignited the debate over cash bail amid growing concerns over a spike in crime across the country. In addition to New York, states including Illinois, New Jersey and California have eliminated their cash bail systems, something critics argue is dangerous.

Zeldin in a statement to The Hill called New York’s cashless bail law “insane” and its “pro-criminal” justice system “broken.”

“The state must start prioritizing the safety of law-abiding New Yorkers over criminals,” Zeldin added. “Cashless bail must be repealed and judges should have more discretion to set cash bail on far more offenses.”

Bail serves as a sort of bargaining chip by courts: when a person is charged with a crime, they pay the court to ensure their appearance at trial. When the person appears for their trial, the court returns the money, whether they’re found guilty or innocent. 

If the person doesn’t show up, the court keeps the money. 

But with $10,000 as the average bail for a felony, advocates for cash bail reform argue it perpetuates systemic injustices, including the over-incarceration of Black and Brown Americans and those living in poverty. 

When a person is unable to make bail, they’re required to stay in detention — sometimes for months as they await trial.

“If a judge needs to be concerned about a person returning to court, there are other options that should be available to a judge,” said Jeremy Cherson, senior policy adviser for The Bail Project. “Financial conditions like cash bail should be the option of last resort and, if they’re used, they should be used in accordance with a person’s ability to pay.”

Other options instead of bail could include stay-away orders or curfews through community-based supervised release programs, Cherson said.

“We tend to think in a very punitive way, like drug testing or a ban on alcohol or something like that,” said Cherson. “But that really fundamentally misunderstands the public health problem, the individual problems that people deal with. The truth is, we just haven’t invested at an appropriate level to give people the treatment that they need in their community.”

If judges have concerns over defendants returning to court, he added, then there should be a due process hearing where evidence is presented and the defendants have legal counsel — something that doesn’t currently exist in bail hearings.

But advocates for cash bail say it’s an important tool at courts’ disposal for public safety. 

After the New York legislature passed the state’s bail reform in 2019, The New York Times reported that opponents, including police chiefs and county district attorneys, said the law allowed for the quick release of defendants on charges like stalking, assault, burglary, arson and robbery.

But in March, the Brennan Center released a report showing there has been no link between bail reform and an increase in crime. 

Still, voters have expressed concerns that bail reform is behind the spiking crime rate. 

A March 2022 Siena College poll found 56 percent of voters in New York thought bail reform has been bad for the state, and 64 percent said it was the reason behind the increase in crime.

Despite this, 56 percent said they were concerned that giving judges more discretion, like Zeldin proposed, would result in poor people and people of color being unfairly incarcerated.

After Zeldin’s attack, Republicans called for a complete repeal of New York’s bail reform, and Zeldin himself proposed having certain defendants required to stay detained.

“There must be real changes to ‘cashless bail’ laws and we must support law enforcement to keep neighbors safe and hold those who endanger the public accountable for their actions,” said Nassau County Republican executive Bruce Blakeman on Twitter.

In a statement, New York State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt (R) said “the political ruling class in Albany dismisses the cries of victims and refuses to act” when legislators called for a special session to consider bail reform. 

The statement added that Senate Republicans “stand ready” to repeal bail reform in order to restore public safety. 

But it’s not just Republicans who have expressed concerns over bail reform. 

New York Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat and former police officer, has been outspoken against the state’s system since he took office in January. 

This week, Adams joined the call on legislators for a special session to strengthen the state’s bail laws for repeat offenders.

With the debate around bail reform back at the forefront of politics, Cherson admitted he’s concerned states like New York could see a reversal on the policy. 

But he remains adamant that “public safety is not dependent on bail reform or issues of bail.”

“Public safety depends on the availability of community services, in the ways in which we police and the ways in which we deal with or consider the use of jails in our communities,” Cherson said. “If we’re not going to invest in social services the ways that we need to, that’s going to set up the conditions that Congressman Zeldin is concerned about. We’re talking about substance use problems. We’re talking about mental health issues, we’re talking about houselessness. Those things need to be addressed.”