New York criminal defense attorney James Magee, a Democrat, has seen first-hand how bail reform hurt the weak and vulnerable that his party vows to protect.

When his district’s Democratic state assemblywoman Catherine Nolan announced retirement in February, opening her seat up for the first time in more than three decades, Magee jumped into the race.

“A refusal to prosecute crime cannot be a part of this party’s platform. I am running to reverse this trend and show that the Democratic Party can govern sensibly on public safety,” Magee told The Epoch Times.

Magee was raised by a working-class family in Sunnyside, a neighborhood on the west side of Queens borough in New York City.

After graduating from law school in 2006, he worked as an assistant district attorney at the city’s Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office for five years before opening his criminal defense practice.

During his years working in the New York criminal justice system, he saw how the system evolved from a heavy-handed punitive approach to one that embraces treatment and rehabilitation.

Yet the bail reform just blew that up, he said.

In April 2019, five months after Democrats regained control of both chambers and governorship in New York, they crammed a major criminal justice reform into the annual state budget.

The reform is often called the bail reform because it eliminates cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. For those offenses, defendants are to be released without paying any money.

It also made big changes to the discovery law, requiring that prosecutors automatically turn over a large amount of evidence to the defense counsel a lot faster. If prosecutors fail to honor the timeline, they risk having their cases dismissed by judges.

The New York State Capitol is seen on Aug. 11, 2021, in Albany. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

“I was shocked when the bail reform was passed. It was trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.

“If you must fix the criminal justice system, you should have fixed the archaic laws and punishments in the penal code itself, not the bail system or the discovery statutes,” Magee said.

Even before the reform, bail was rarely set in misdemeanor cases that Magee handled, except where the suspects had a history of missing court dates, he said.

For these people, nine out of 10 had either mental illness or drug addiction. So, a cash bail helped incentivize them to come back to court and get court-ordered treatment, he said.

As to the new discovery law, it became so burdensome for prosecutors to catch up with all the paperwork that many started to stop prosecuting misdemeanor cases altogether; others simply quit under the pressure, he said.

“Prosecutors are racing against the clock just to keep the cases alive. They must focus on rapes, guns, shootings, and they just have no time to prosecute petty crime anymore,” Magee said.

That means many of Magee’s clients are falling through the cracks. A big chunk of his business is misdemeanor cases, where mental illness and drug addictions are big drivers. About half of his clients are low-income minorities.

Prior to the reform, Magee placed two or three clients into court-ordered treatment programs every month. During the past two-and-a-half years, he has placed none.

“For many of them, criminal prosecution is often the only incentive to get treatment. Plus, New York has a lot of leeways to behave whatever way you want, and a lot of people with mental illness had no access to treatment until they were caught with a petty crime.

“When that happens, it is a good opportunity for us to treat them, but all that is blown up now because their cases are not being prosecuted anymore,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Hundreds of delivery workers protest a surge in the thefts of their bicycles on Oct. 15, 2020, in New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The law hurt not only his clients but also victims, he said.

“Petty crimes are no longer prosecuted, and people suffering from mental health and addictions are on the street—that is why you are seeing an uptick in crime.

“And the victims of petty crime are often small business owners and residents who don’t have a lot of money to begin with,” Magee said.

When Nolan, the three-decade incumbent of the 37th district seat, announced retirement, Magee and three other Democratic candidates jumped into the open primary. The primary election date is set for June 28.

Crime is a major issue in the race. Two candidates, Juan Ardila and Johanna Carmona, propose more restrictive gun laws to curb violent crime; another candidate Brent O’Leary suggests tweaking the bail reform and stemming illegal gun trafficking.

Magee is the only candidate running to systematically fix bail reform.

He has been knocking on doors every day, talking to residents in the district. They complained to him about the graffiti in the park, drug dealing around the corner, theft of Amazon packages, and occasional shooting in the neighborhoods.

He tried to convince them of the link between bail reform and rising crime.

“There are people now in my party who believe that in modern society, we do not need a criminal justice system. We should move toward a Utopia society.

“I think while we should never stop addressing the root causes of crime, it is also a basic governmental responsibility to address crime once it is committed,” Magee said.

Cara Ding


Cara is a Chicago-based Epoch Times reporter. She can be reached at

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