"Legal Experts" Lie, Fearmonger About Bail Reform in News Segment

A three-minute news segment on Gov. Hochul’s regressive bail reform rollbacks is riddled with lies and misleading information about state law.

Fact Check: False

The Briefing

A three-minute news segment on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s regressive bail reform rollbacks is riddled with lies and misleading information about state law. The WIVB piece quotes “legal experts” who fearmonger and lie about bail reform. The misinformation comes as Hochul prepares to forge ahead with her dangerous proposal to weaken civil rights protections and unnecessarily jail more New Yorkers. 

The piece relies heavily on the “expert” opinion of Penny Wolfgang, a former state Supreme Court judge who spends her retirement lying to the public about bail reform. Justice Not Fear covered Wolfgang’s dangerous musings in October, when she appeared on WIVB to proclaim that she ignored the statutory purpose of bail while she was a sitting judge. In that media appearance, Wolfgang said she made bail decisions based on her subjective impressions of who should be in jail, and not on the statutory criteria that has been New York law for decades. 

Wolfgang fearmongers about crime in her most recent interview, making up a hypothetical about someone who has stolen a car “every day in the last month” and falsely labeling bail reform as a “revolving door system.” These are right-wing talking points completely detached from reality. 

Bail reform only affected low-level crimes; judges retain and use their wide discretion to set bail on a wide range of alleged offenses. Moreover, New York’s jail system is not a “revolving door” – rather it is overcrowded and dangerous. Nearly 6,000 people are incarcerated on Rikers Island right now, the vast majority of whom are presumed legally innocent. Wolfgang’s comments are particularly insensitive at a time when a record number of New Yorkers are dying at Rikers, including people held on non-violent charges.

The WIVB segment goes on to quote two other law enforcement sources – cited as “legal experts” – who lie about the law. 

Erie County Sheriff John Garcia lies about the statutory purpose of bail, falsely asserting that bail is meant “to keep those that are very violent and are a danger to the community.” This is false. The statutory purpose of bail – which has been true for decades, before and after bail reform – is to ensure a person’s appearance in court.

Finally, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn, who has lied about bail reform in the past, opined that Hochul’s radical plan will allow judges to “keep us safe.” Flynn is wrong. We are not safer in a world where a few thousand dollars in bail is a death sentence. The “us” that Flynn wants judges to keep “safe” does not include the thousands of people incarcerated in dehumanizing conditions in New York’s jails, nor the families of people who have died at Rikers.

Bad policy, bad process

Hochul’s tune on bail reform has completely changed in a matter of months, as she admitted last week she is governing off headlines. In September, Hochul, through a spokeswoman, made several points that sound like a Justice Not Fear briefing: 1) that judges do not have their “hands tied” by bail reform laws; 2) that judges “have and use their broad discretion” regularly; and 3) judges possessed that same discretion before and after bail reform.  

Now, despite data, judges, and research experts debunking her claims, Hochul has walked back those statements and is proceeding with her radical proposal. The governor has held up the state’s budget for a month to haggle with legislative leaders in an undemocratic process behind closed doors, all for a proposal that will weaken civil rights protections and condemn more New Yorkers to deadly jail conditions. Legislators now have an opportunity to stand behind a policy that protects safety, upholds freedom, and saves taxpayer dollars by rejecting Hochul’s regressive proposal.

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