New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed reforms of the state bail system on Friday in the wake of the alleged shooting of a police officer by a man with a long criminal record who had been released on bail.
De Blasio said he wanted the state to pass legislation that would let judges consider whether an accused is dangerous to the community when determining how to set bail. Currently, state law only lets judges consider whether someone is a flight risk—if they think a defendant is likely not to return to court, they can set the bail higher.
Tyrone Howard, who is accused of shooting Police Officer Randolph Holder Jr., is 30 years old and had been arrested 28 times, according to police. After he was arrested on a drug charge last October, he was released on a $35,000 bail, pleaded guilty, and enrolled in a drug diversion program earlier this year. Howard stopped attending the program, and police were looking for him in connection with a separate Sept. 1 shooting when he allegedly shot and killed Holder on Tuesday night, prosecutors say.
De Blasio said Howard should have been kept behind bars. "I'm a progressive person, I'm a humanitarian, but I can tell you some people are irredeemable," de Blasio said at a press conference today. "Unless they are treated very, very differently, they pose a danger to society and we have to look that in the face."
His move suggests how quickly a tragic incident like Officer Holder's shooting can shift the conversation on criminal justice reform. Before the shooting, de Blasio's main efforts on bail were about making it easier for poor defendants to avoid being detained if they couldn't pay: This summer, he proposed eliminating bail altogether for nonviolent and low-level offenders.
While de Blasio's proposed reforms would make it tougher for some defendants to get bail, he said he's still continuing his push to help poor defendants. The mayor also argued that his proposed changes to the state bail law would allow judges to use more discretion and give lower sentences to accused who were not dangerous to the public.
“We’re out of balance on both ends,” he said Friday, arguing that low-level offenders who can't afford bail are being detained unnecessarily while more dangerous offenders are being released.
The judge who allowed Howard to enroll in a drug diversion program instead of going to prison, Edward McLaughlin, said that the defendant made sense as a candidate for a diversion.
"I don't get a crystal ball when I get the robe,” McLaughlin told the New York Daily News. "This defendant Howard at the time was 30 years old. He had four felony drug convictions, no violence."
De Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton slammed McLaughlin's decision. "If ever there was a candidate for someone not to be diverted, it's this guy," Bratton at a press conference earlier this week. "He's the poster boy for not being diverted."
Howard's case may give more ammunition to critics of programs that keep defendants accused of drug crimes out of jail.
"Drug courts are the most effective intervention in the justice system for individuals with substance abuse histories," Carson Fox, executive director of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, told The Associated Press. Removing that option would end up costing law enforcement a lot more, he said.
President Obama has also praised the kind of drug diversion programs Howard participated in. "We’re missing opportunities for us to create safer communities through drug diversion and treatment," he said at a talk on criminal justice reform at the White House yesterday.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.