An attack on a member of the New York congressional delegation last month showed how partisan activists are misrepresenting the issue of bail reform for their own divisive purposes.
A man walked onstage July 21 as U.S. Rep. Lee M. Zeldin, R-Long Island, delivered a speech in the town of Perinton as part of his campaign for governor. The individual told Zeldin, “You’re done,” and tried to strike him while clutching a hardened plastic keychain with two pointed edges. Bystanders quickly subdued the man and detained him until law enforcement agents arrived, and Zeldin sustained no injuries.
Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley charged David G. Jakubonis, a 43-year-old Fairport resident, with attempted assault in the second degree. This Class E felony count is not considered a violent act, so authorities released Jakubonis on his own recognizance in compliance with the state’s bail reform process.
Zeldin, who has criticized the law during his run for governor, took advantage of the incident to press his case.
“It is terrible public policy that in the state of New York, you can try to stab a sitting member of Congress, or anyone else for that matter, and be back out on the street not even six hours later,” Katie Vincentz, spokeswoman for Zeldin for New York, said in a news release issued July 22. “This is one of many reasons why crime is on the rise, especially in certain parts of the state. There is not enough accountability for people when they commit crimes, and this is just one of the many examples we hear all about in New York every single day. Enough is enough!”
However, some of Zeldin’s political opponents saw things differently. In a story it published July 26, The New York Times quoted several Democrats in claiming that Doorley — who has publicly supported Zeldin — may have teed up Jakubonis for a direct political hit by the GOP candidate.
“I have no idea why a prosecutor would not charge the more serious offense,” Charles D. Lavine, a Democrat who chairs the state Assembly’s Judiciary Committee and is a former criminal defense lawyer, said in the article. “Here’s a situation where someone attacks an elected official with a weapon. Could it have been — as some people are suggesting — that the charge was drafted in such a way as to allow Zeldin to complain about the bail laws in the state of New York? That I don’t know.”
Both arguments have some merit on the surface.
It’s preposterous to contemplate that someone could attack a federal legislator and be freed without bail a few hours later. While he missed Zeldin, Jakubonis attempted to stab him. How can this be considered a non-violent offense?
At the same time, though, Doorley had the option of charging Jakubonis with a more serious count; this would have ensured that he could be held on bail. Until recently, Doorley was listed on Zeldin’s website as the co-chair of his gubernatorial campaign (she resigned after this was made public).
However, a deeper examination of this case is needed to provide more clarity. It appears that people on both sides of the debate are cherry-picking facts to suit their objectives.
We join Zeldin in criticizing the bail reform measure. On this page, we have argued that state legislators ignored the advice given to them by law enforcement officials on how to improve the law. Despite some revisions, judges still need more discretion in deciding if a suspect poses an ongoing threat to public safety.
But it’s necessary to remind critics that the purpose of bail is not to begin punishing someone for a crime they may have committed — this is what trials are for. Judges set bail to ensure that a suspect will show up for future court proceedings.
In addition, Doorley selected the proper charge for Jakubonis. In a July 25 article he wrote for Reason magazine, Scott Shackford pointed out that Jakubonis was intoxicated when he attacked Zeldin and mistakenly believed the candidate was demeaning his fellow veterans.
“As more facts about what happened that afternoon came out, it is arguable that Doorley’s office made the right call. Despite the apparent outrageousness of a physical attack on a sitting congressman, perhaps Jakubonis doesn’t need to be in a jail cell to protect the public,” Shackford wrote. “An FBI special agent report about the incident describes interviews with Jakubonis post-arrest. Jakubonis, an Iraq War veteran, told Monroe County sheriff’s deputies on the scene that he had been drinking whiskey that day, didn’t know who Zeldin was and was somehow under the incorrect perception that Zeldin was ‘disrespecting veterans.’ Thus, he confronted the congressman and attempt to stop the speech. When he was shown a video of the confrontation, he said that he ‘must have checked out.’ Assuming Jakubonis’s statements are honest, this is not a case of somebody targeting Zeldin for his campaign positions or political affiliation or attempting some sort of act of domestic terrorism.
“If the purpose of bail is to make sure that people accused of crimes agree to behave and show up for court dates when they’re released, the facts don’t actually support demanding any cash bail out of Jakubonis. And even if a judge did have the ability to evaluate Jakubonis for ‘dangerousness,’ there doesn’t seem to be any here. He perhaps needs a mental health intervention, which Joe Chenelley, a Republican candidate for New York state Assembly who was there and helped tackle Jakubonis, himself noted. That’s an intervention that can take place outside of a prison cell. Ultimately, this attack on Zeldin illustrates the complexity of the bail reform issue. Simplistic solutions, no matter how satisfying they might sound when giving campaign speeches about high crime rates, are wrong. Demanding that Jakubonis pay cash bail wouldn’t make Zeldin or the community any safer given the alleged circumstances. Cash bail might have resulted in Jakubonis being stuck behind bars not because he is dangerous but because he didn’t have the money to post. This is the outcome that bail reformers have been trying to prevent. And even though the judge didn’t have some sort of authority to evaluate Jakubonis for dangerousness, it turns out that prosecutors can leverage the law in the determination of what to charge.”
The U.S. Department of Justice charged Jakubonis with assaulting a member of Congress using a dangerous weapon — and he was held on bail. He was scheduled to appear before a federal judge July 27 for a detention hearing.
We appreciate the differing viewpoints on New York’s bail reform process. But reducing the issue to simplistic talking points to push a partisan agenda does no one any good.