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Want a More Just Long Island? Choose Better Judges! No More Hacks!

We hear a steady stream of political grandstanding about how the recent attempt at bail reform in New York State caused an uptick in crime—mostly from conservative politicians looking to make political hay at the expense of an issue that cries for closer examination.

The impetus for the change in bail laws came from cases like that of Kalief Browder, who spent three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime, after his arrest in 2010, at the age of 16 for stealing a backpack, which he insisted that he did not do. Not being able to post $3,000 bail, he waited on Rikers for more than a thousand days to go to trial. The trial never happened. 

During his time on Rikers, he spent two years in solitary confinement and attempted suicide on several occasions. Prison videos showed him being assaulted by inmates and he recounted incidents of abuse at the hands of officers.

Released after three years without a trial, he returned home to the Bronx where he suffered from depression and other mental health issues. In 2015, he hung himself at his parents’ home. 

This is not an isolated case. About two-thirds of America’s jail population — 450,000 people — are behind bars awaiting trial. And five out of six of those people are in jail because they could not afford bail or because a bail agent declined to post a bond.

Against this backdrop, New York and other states passed bail reform legislation. Now, because of a surge in crime in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, politicians, including a large number of Nassau and Suffolk’s not-so-finest, want to turn back the clock to the bad old days that Kalief Browder lived through.

Instead of repealing the bail reform laws, I would suggest a different path—ban the cross-endorsement of judges. Did you ever notice that when you get to the part of your ballot that lists the candidates for judgeships, the same candidate’s name appears for each of the political parties? That happens because political bosses get together and trade judgeships like Pokémon cards. Does the cream rise to the top? Rarely. Instead, political leaders trade one of their hacks for a hack from another party. How do get chosen for these positions? You schmooze the leaders and make donations to their leaders and favored candidates. An attorney friend of mine told me about a judge who asked his court clerk what to do every time he needed to make a ruling…a stellar jurist.

By banning cross-endorsements, politicians will show their faith in democracy and give us more qualified and able judges. Even under the current reform law, a judge can remand a suspect to prison without bail. Why don’t they? Maybe it’s because they are incompetent and don’t even know their own authority. If we want a more just Long Island, maybe we should start by electing better judges. Makes sense to me.

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