Westchester County Officials Debunked by Their Own Data

Multiple officials in Westchester County are fearmongering about rising crime and falsely tying a non-existent county crimewave to discovery and bail reform.

Fact Check: Fearmongering, False, Lies, Data

The Briefing

On February 23, 2022, Westchester County Executive George Latimer released crime statistics showing that crime had fallen by double digits across the board when compared to already-low 2017 statistics. Rising crime “is not happening in Westchester County,” Latimer said. But just last week, multiple officials in the county—including the Yonkers Police Commissioner and Westchester County Legislator James Nolan—were fearmongering about rising crime and falsely tying this non-existent county crimewave to discovery and bail reform and Raise the Age legislation. Their claims were thoroughly and quickly debunked by the county’s own data. 

As the largest city in Westchester County, Yonkers is home to more than 20% of the total county population. And according to the numbers released by the County, crime in Westchester is way down. Index crime decreased 26.5% when comparing the most recent data to 2017. Total violent crime has decreased 27.6% and total property crimes decreased 26.3 percent (including burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft). But these numbers further prove that facts do not stop anti-reform opponents from capitalizing on fear to beat back modest reform.

Attempts to tie reform to rising crime—even in areas that, unlike Westchester County, have actually experienced an increase in certain crime rates—have repeatedly been shown to be illegitimate. In New York City, nearly 200,000 people whose cases may have otherwise had bail set have been free to be with their families, jobs, housing, education and communities without the threat of being detained on Rikers Island and other violent jails across the state while presumed innocent. Just as before bail reform, of those who are released pretrial — including people charged with violent felonies, who judges still have power to detain under the law — nearly 95% have not been rearrested for anything, and 99% have not been rearrested for violent felonies. The supposed connection between an increase in violent crime and bail reform has not only been debunked by statistics like these, but by the New York Police Department’s own data, which undermined former Commissioner Dermot Shea’s claims that people released on bail were responsible for an increase in shootings.

There are certainly plausible explanations as to why Westchester County, one of the top ten wealthiest counties in the country and the county with the highest tax rate, would not be experiencing an increase in harm despite upticks elsewhere.

On Bail Reform:

Statement: Yonkers Police Commissioner John Mueller said, “In Yonkers, bail reform is affecting property crimes (car breaks ins and shoplifting).” 

The Truth: This is false. Motor vehicle thefts and burglary specifically decreased. 

Statement: Mueller also said, “There is a small subset of repeat offenders that commit most of the crimes. We can say that if we made some minor changes to bail reform it would help with property crime. Just give us the tools to deal with that small group.” Mayor Spano reiterated this point, saying, “Under the old laws, there was an ability to keep some repeat offenders in jail.”

The Truth: This is false. Provisions in the bail reform law do allow for bail to be set when someone is accused of repeated rearrests while they are awaiting trial under the “harm plus harm” provision. This exception to the general rule about certain low-level offenses being ineligible for bail has been broadly interpreted by judges to include instances of repeated thefts. 

Moreover, Mueller and Spano, like other anti-reform officials, are promoting the use of bail as a de facto pre-trial finding of guilt and sentencing. Using bail to “deal with” a subset of people means using pre-trial detention outside of its purpose as a mechanism to ensure return to court. This amounts to a presumption of guilt rather than innocence.  In calling for the indefinite detention of “repeat offenders,” they are not calling for rollbacks to bail reform. Prior to reform, a person may still have been free pre-trial if they posted bail or were released by a judge. Anti-reform officials such as those in this article are actually proposing sweeping changes to constitutional protections for people presumed innocent that are far broader than pre-2020 practices.

Statement: Westchester County Legislator James Nolan said, “I have spoke to many local officials and these repeals and changes are recommended to reduce crime and protect the innocent in our community. Repeal or amend The Cashless Bail Reform to allow the Judges to have discretion if they should release an individual or hold them especially for violent offenders.”

The Truth: In Mr. Nolan’s jurisdiction, pre-trial reforms have been introduced alongside a reduction in crime and harm. Felonies classified as violent have also always been eligible for bail. Any person on probation or parole may always have bail set, regardless of the charge, and may also be held by those oversight agencies unilaterally upon their arrest. 

“The Cashless Bail Reform” is a misnomer that has nevertheless been used by multiple officials who have been vocally anti-reform, including GOP gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin in his platform and public statements. There is no such thing as “cashless bail.” Cash bail is also still regularly utilized across the state, both on the more serious charges that have always remained bail eligible and through myriad exceptions to the exemptions of low-level misdemeanors and certain non-violent-classified felonies. 

On Discovery Reform:

Statement: The President of the Yonkers PBA, Keith Olson, stated that discovery reform contributes to rising crime, while other officials also pointed to “reforms” generally.

The Truth: This is completely false. There is neither a rise in crime in Olson’s county nor does evidence exist that ties discovery reform to any rise in instances of harm elsewhere.  

On Raise the Age:

Statement: Mueller said, “Raise the Age legislation is impacting our violent crime.” 

The Truth: This statement and other similar quotes in the article suggest that Raise the Age Legislation has led to an increase in violent crime. Data, however, shows that the county’s violent crime is down by double digits. 

There is no link between reform and any rise in crime elsewhere, either. New York was among the last jurisdictions to recognize the disparate and even more devastating impacts of the punishment system and incarceration on children and to implement modest legislation like Raise the Age to attempt to mitigate some of these harms. This was done in recognition of the data and science around juvenile brain development, including the enhanced risk of wrongful confessions and the ongoing formation of the areas of the brain that impact impulse control and decision-making. 

Nolan and others are calling for rollbacks to Raise the Age including the unsealing of juvenile records. The purpose of dismissing and sealing cases is to reflect the data-backed belief—which underpins the nationwide trend in legislation to remove young people from adult criminal court proceedings—that the mistakes young people make as children should not always derail or define them for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, teenagers potentially included in Raise the Age legislation are still prosecuted in adult criminal court for certain charges, including gun possession and allegations of violence. Furthermore, the Family Court system itself is still exacting and punitive, and dismissals are only granted in some cases after intense court supervision, rigorous programming, and potentially periods of incarcerations. 

New York was late to join the ranks of almost every other jurisdiction in America in treating children as children in certain proceedings, and even now the change is narrow and moderate. Raise the Age has mitigated harm to some teenagers accused of crimes; it has not contributed to any decrease in public safety. 

On Guns:

The Statement: Yonkers City Councilman Mike Breen said, “These violent crimes committed with illegal guns have been occurring on a regular basis and the NYS legislators who refuse to change our laws to protect the law-abiding are to blame. Day after day we are under attack by those that have no fear of punishment. The NYS legislature must act NOW before more innocent lives are lost.”

The Truth: Charges classified as violent—including simple gun possession in New York—have always been eligible for bail. The framing of being “under attack” also uses a fearmongering trope while suggesting the existence of a rise in violent crime, when the numbers show the opposite to be true. 

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Westchester County Officials Debunked by Their Own Data