ALBANY — As state lawmakers returned to the Capitol this week, the bail reform law passed in last year’s historically productive legislative session has carried over into the new year with tension.
Republicans have pushed for repeal of the law which allows individuals charged with most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies to be released from custody without bail. Even some Democrat legislators have proposed amendments to the law, or at least expressed openness to exploring tweaks. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who proposed the legislation in his 2019 agenda, called the reforms a “work in progress” in a speech last week, and said there were “consequences that we have to adjust for.”
The first few days of the new session come on the heels of the first week of the law’s rollout, a timing that has given elected officials plenty of debate material as news of alleged criminals being released from jail pre-trial dominates the headlines.
Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, R-Long Island, listed examples of these stories while proposing a repeal of the laws in Senate session Thursday. The amendment was defeated 43-20.
“New York state is in a crisis at this moment, as we speak,” he said. “You enacted criminal justice reform that we think is awful.”
Republican lawmakers from the Hudson Valley, Western New York and north country have joined Flanagan in sounding alarms over bail reform, as well, and many were dismayed Cuomo did not mention the issue during his State of the State address Wednesday.
“It would be better policy today if there were more discussion about it between the Assembly and Senate,” said Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown, who has been circulating a petition to repeal the laws. “You can meet the intent of the majority party while actually being reasonable about the policy.”
During his opening address, newly elected Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Marcy, also urged his fellow legislators to take another look at the laws, saying he’s “not trying to grind the political axe” but rather protect public safety and listen to local law enforcement officials, judges and district attorneys who have expressed concerns about repercussions of the new laws.
Aside from the governor, Attorney General Letitia James also voiced concerns over some aspects of the law, and announced this week that her office would be drafting amendment recommendations to send to the legislature.
In an interview with Capitol Pressroom, James said she would want hate crimes to be reevaluated for judicial discretion, and that adding a type of dangerousness assessment tool to determine pre-trial release could also be helpful.
But she said she supports moving away from a cash bail system.
“As a former criminal defense attorney, I recognize that poverty and mental illness should not be crimes,” she said. “You have a system which was created by man and there are inherent biases created therein. So it’s important that we come up with objective proposals so that it does not result in racial disparities, and that individuals are treated fairly.”
Proponents of the law, including most Democrat legislators, have said bail reform is an essential step to level the playing field for lower income communities and communities of color. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, refers to it as making the justice system just.
“There gets a point where you’re criminalizing poverty,” she recently told reporters. “When you have somebody who’s accused of a nonviolent felony and misdemeanor, and they’re in jail for years at a time unconvicted because there were a few hundred dollars their family couldn’t come up with, it makes no sense.”
Similarly, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said the reforms were about making sure defendants get treated equally, and urged people to have more patience and let the law take effect.
He reminded reporters Thursday that all the listed crimes were previously eligible for cash bail, so alleged criminals used to be released from jail if they could afford the sum. Hence, he said, people should stop “equating bail with safety.”
Heastie also told reporters that he would not be open to amending the laws in any way to allow for judicial discretion, unlike some of his Democrat colleagues.
“Judicial discretion invites back in bias,” he said. “When two people who are charged with the same crime end up with different bails, that gives me pause on judicial discretion. Right now the way the law is written, it is based on the crime you are accused of, whether you should be released.”
Activists slammed the GOP and the few Democrat lawmakers who have supported repealing or amending the law after fighting long and hard for its passage.
New Yorkers United for Justice sent out a press release Thursday, criticizing senators and accusing them of using the reforms as a political tactic.
“There’s a big difference between a reasonable, thoughtful conversation about how to continue to improve the system and unreasonably, thoughtlessly trying to restore a broken status quo,” said Khalil Cumberbatch, chief strategist of the group.
At a rally at the State Capitol on Tuesday, Stanley Fritz, state political director for Citizen Action, told protesters to “Straighten your back up, puff your chest up and hold firm on bail.”
“There is absolutely no going back,” he said.
Massarah Mikati covers the New York State Legislature and immigration for Johnson Newspaper Corp. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find her on Twitter @massarahmikati.