One of the obstacles to approving the state budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year was a disagreement over how to further revise New York’s cash bail process.
There is no question that the bail system needed to be reformed. Numerous defendants were spending prolonged periods of time incarcerated before standing trial simply because they couldn’t raise the bail set by a judge.
The primary function of bail is to act as leverage against those accused of criminal acts failing to appear at mandatory court proceedings. If they don’t want to lose the money they’ve put up for bail, they better not skip town.
But far too many defendants who do not pose a flight risk wind up sitting in jail for months — if not longer — due to their economic status. Bail is not supposed to be used to punish people before they’ve been convicted of any crime.
So if some lower-income individuals are compelled to serve time prior to receiving due process, an injustice has occurred. Striving to implement policies to correct this problem was entirely appropriate.
However, lawmakers in Albany went too far in the legislation they passed in 2019 to address this concern. These measures took effect Jan. 1, 2020, and a growing chorus called for them to take another look at this problem.
This law established criteria for judges to take into account when setting bail. It also mandated new rules for prosecutors in the discovery phase and additional procedures for police officers in investigating crimes. Many representatives of the criminal justice system said this law imposed overly burdensome regulations on them and would hamper their ability to carry out their law enforcement duties.
Critics of the bail reform measure asserted that crime in certain areas of the state, particularly New York City, increased because defendants were released without cash bail. There are many factors involved in rising crime statistics, so claiming it’s primarily due to bail reform is inaccurate. However, the issue caught the attention of state officials, who felt the need to take action.
State legislators tweaked the bail reform law on a couple of occasions, once in the spring of 2020 and once in the spring of 2022. As the state Legislature embarked upon negotiations for the new budget this session, Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul once again called for additional changes be made to the law. Last week, lawmakers and Hochul said they reached a tentative agreement on this plan.
“A budget deal is finally coming together as Gov. Kathleen Hochul and legislative leaders reportedly reached a tentative agreement [April 17] that would give judges more discretion to set bail for serious crimes,” according to a New York Daily New story published April 18 by the Watertown Daily Times. “Hochul’s insistence on including overhauls to New York’s bail laws has hampered negotiations for weeks and left the state without a spending plan despite the April 1 start of a new fiscal year. The compromise, City & State reports, could grant jurists greater leeway to set bail in violent felony cases by removing the ‘least restrictive means’ requirement — but would keep in place a section of the law defining bail as a tool to ensure a defendant returns to court.”
Time will tell if these changes will make the kinds of improvements needed to strike the proper balance between ensuring the rights of criminal defendants and promoting public safety. But we commend Hochul and lawmakers for making additional changes to a flawed process, and we encourage them to remain open to further revisions.
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