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A private donor paid for six teenagers from Queens, New York, to attend a Mets game in July for having attended every one of their court dates.
Analysis

Tabloid Fuels Collective Anxiety Attack Over Bail Ban

How “free Mets tickets” for teens became a flashpoint in debate over looming bail reform law.

On July 25, six teenagers from Queens, New York, were given a chance to attend a professional sporting event, many of them for the first time in their lives: a baseball game between the San Diego Padres and their hometown Mets.

That night under the lights, they were chaperoned by social workers from New York City’s Criminal Justice Agency, a nonprofit overseen by the mayor’s office. The agency works with recently arrested people whom a judge has selected to be put under close supervision while their cases are pending—as an alternative to awaiting trial in jail. The teens were being rewarded for their cooperation.

Yet in a series of misleading articles in the New York Post last week in advance of a new state law that will ban the use of cash bail in nearly all misdemeanor and nonviolent felony cases, the teens attending the Mets game were called out as exemplifying a new wave of “crook coddling,” or “goodies” for “baddies.”

In the run-up to the law taking effect Jan. 1, many New Yorkers have been experiencing a kind of collective anxiety attack at the thought of people who have been accused of crimes not having to go straight to jail. The backlash—as in California, New Jersey and other states that have taken a swing at bail reform in recent years—has been swift and at times sensationalized. Across the state, sheriffs and letter-to-the-editor writers have sounded the alarm about alleged criminals roaming free come 2020.

The rationale behind the new bail law is that making often low-income defendants pay to get out of jail effectively punishes poverty and also locks up those who have not yet been convicted of any crime. In New York, bail is imposed to make sure that people show up in court and is separate from the question of whether someone poses a threat to public safety.

But the Post proclaimed that “Mayor Bill de Blasio is promising to follow up [on the new law] with even more presents for the lucky accused criminals — by giving them free baseball tickets…”

Nowhere did the articles note that only six defendants, out of the nearly 5,000 who go through the city’s “supervised release” programs every year, have ever gotten to go to a baseball game—that it was a one-time event, six months before the law was even set to take effect. And it was a private donor who’d paid for their tickets, not taxpayers. The teens were there as a reward for having attended every one of their court dates, for actively participating in their group therapy sessions and for being responsive to feedback on their behavior.

As part of these programs, defendants meet with social workers as often as once a week to make sure they attend court, don’t get arrested again and get connected with the drug treatment, mental-health services, housing assistance or job training they may need.

Nor did the tabloid stories mention that positive incentives, which account for less than 1 percent of the citywide budget for supervised release, are one of the most effective ways of getting young people to comply with the justice system, according to decades of psychological research.

“It’s such a well-proven scientific principle that among serious scientists the question isn’t do rewards work, it’s how frequently to reward and how long to keep rewarding for,” said Dr. Douglas B. Marlowe, senior scientific consultant for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, an organization that studies pretrial programs, especially for drug-addicted people.

“Particularly with adolescents who are ruled by their impulses,” Marlowe said, “if you can arrange their lives to reward them for doing well—that’s what any good parent or teacher or sports coach would do.”

The New York Post’s public-relations firm did not respond to a request for comment.

The uproar over the one-time Mets tickets giveaway also overlooks how successful New York’s efforts to cut back on cash bail have been over the past decade, long before its formal abolition was within striking distance. Even as the city’s jail population has plummeted from 22,000 in the 1990s to about 7,000, it has become the safest major urban area in the nation, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the New York Police Department.

As for the Queens program for 16- to 19-year-olds, not one of the 30 teens in it at the time of the Mets game has failed to appear in court.

“Of course I have the concerns that anyone would have, if we’re being honest, about this new law—it really is a revolutionary change, a social experiment,” said Judge George A. Grasso, supervising judge of Bronx Criminal Court and of citywide arraignments. “But I think our city is actually more ready for it than the rest of the state is, precisely because we already have these demonstrably effective programs in place.”

“It’s hard for me to be critical of a Mets game,” the judge added, noting that releasing people without supervision ought to be scarier.

The change, when January rolls around, will indeed be hard to navigate. Last year, the city’s supervised-release effort, which includes not just the Queens program but also ones run by the Center for Court Innovation in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island and by an organization called CASES in Manhattan, worked with about 4,600 defendants. That number is expected to triple or even quadruple, according to the mayor’s office.

And under the new law, those accused of some more serious felonies will be eligible for release from jail, too, so the task of helping a different pool of people, and ensuring that a similarly high percentage of them show up in court, will be even more challenging.

The plan, officials say, is to keep using both rewards and sanctions as motivators for the new participants. On the one hand, the programs will continue offering small, targeted incentives, including movie tickets and fast-food gift cards for good behavior as well as MetroCards so that kids will not fail to turn up in court because they are unable to afford the costs of transportation. On the other, they can and will report defendants’ progress at every court hearing and notify the judge if someone has been missing classes or got arrested again.

Jahari Albright, 18, one of the young men who attended the now-infamous Mets game in July, responded to the New York Post articles this way: “Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but the smallest things can have the biggest impact on a person.”

“For me, I don’t really have too many other positive incentives, in my life, to do right,” he said of the chance to get out of his low-income neighborhood and interact with new people over snacks and soda at Citi Field.

“Now,” he said, “I like baseball.”

The headline on this story was updated after publication to specify that only one tabloid newspaper has published misleading articles about the bail reform law.