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Capital Region lawmaker and sheriffs call for bail reform changes

 New York State Senator Tedisco and Capital Region sheriffs in Fultonville
Ashley Hupfl
New York State Senator Tedisco and Capital Region sheriffs in Fultonville

Capital Region sheriffs and lawmakers gathered Wednesday to call for changes to New York’s bail reform laws before the legislative session ends in June.

Republican state Senator Jim Tedisco in Fultonville joined the Montgomery, Fulton, Saratoga and Herkimer county sheriffs in asking lawmakers to give judges more discretion when setting bail.

Tedisco, from the 49th district, says the change in the law has caused a rise in crime.

“Police are calling what took place a catch and release and they’re calling it a revolving door – which it is. But, it also is a revolving door of danger and disaster,” the Republican said.

The Democratic-controlled New York State Legislature passed bail reform during the 2019 legislative session and it took effect in 2020. Under the laws, cash bail is prohibited for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies and judges are required to release people with the least restrictive conditions imposed.

Proponents argue people of color are disproportionally represented in the state’s prisons and jails and bail discriminates against that population.

The laws came under fire as crime spiked amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans latched onto the issue going into an election year, saying the rise in crime is due to the bail reforms, despite there being a nationwide increase.

Tedisco conceded the pandemic may be a factor, but believes the bail reforms are playing a larger role.

“I think there could be other factors. Yeah, I think probably maybe the pandemic has something to do with it. But, the levels are just astounding. And I mean, we see it every day, in the papers, ‘This person was arrested nine times or something and this person was just arrested last week and they're doing this,'" he said. "I mean, the statistics are there that it's people being released that also are committing a lot of crimes. And we know that under the previous law, these people would not be released and they could not commit those crimes as efficiently, effectively as they are right now.”

During the press conference, Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo and Montgomery County Sheriff Jeffrey Smith said the most apparent change in the bail laws has been seen in domestic violence arrests.

Zurlo says with the new laws, if a man or woman is arrested for domestic violence they are released almost immediately.

“They would set bail (previously), it's more or less a cooldown period. (Now) You (pay) $250, you're out (or) you're out the next day. You're cooling down to understand what took place," he said. "Instead, it's almost like a catch and release now and they're right back out there and the judge will say, ‘Well, there's an order of protection.’ Well, that's nothing to these people if they want to commit the crime again.”

Smith described one such incident that happened a few weeks ago in Montgomery County.

“Just recently, last Friday, we had a male hold a knife to an ex-girlfriend's throat at 7:30 in the morning. A few months ago, that same male was arrested for a strangulation and domestic violence incident that, prior to bail reform, would have been arraigned because an order (of) protection was requested. Most likely - and I can't guarantee it as I stand here, because I'm not the judge - bail would have been set, he would have been in our facility on bail because of that original incident and received some mental health counseling, maybe some anger management counseling. He did not come to jail, he was released. Last Friday, he stood outside of her apartment waiting for her to come outside, held a knife to her throat, was rearrested (and) violated the order protection. So, there's a specific example of where that individual may have gotten some help and not have committed the second offense.”

Julie Keegan, clinical services program director at the Unity House of Troy Domestic Violence Services, says survivors have been more hesitant to file charges against their alleged abusers in the wake of the bail reform laws.

“The report only then just incites anger in the abusive partner. Typically, there had been time between release from their arrest. Now, we're not seeing that they're being released, usually right away. Often just returning back to the situation, just with heightened emotion towards the situation.”

Many domestic violence offenders are charged with misdemeanors. Keegan says she would like to see changes to give judges more discretion on setting bail or increasing the punishment to keep alleged abusers away from their victims.

“Those couple of hours that we are being given are really, really important in terms of the release of perpetrators from jail. And if we had just a little bit more time, we'd have even more time to layer in services for the individual, whereas now we're not having as much time.”

Although Governor Kathy Hochul and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, both Democrats, originally said there is no appetite to scrap the bail reforms this year and want to wait for more data before considering changes, Hochul is now signaling she is open to adjustments.

According to an internal memo obtained by multiple media outlets, Hochul is pushing lawmakers to expand the number of crimes eligible for bail and wants to give judges more discretion to take into account criminal history and harm defendants could pose to others when setting bail.

At the press conference on Wednesday, Tedisco said he believed changes would be made this year. The Republican said he believes there is enough support for a measure to give judges more discretion passed in the Assembly, though its fate in the state Senate remains unclear. Democratic New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer, has also called for changes to the bail laws.

“They've said a lot of things about a lot of things. They said they weren't going to do the gas tax elimination and you know it's in the budget, one-house in the Senate. So, listen to what and watch what they do and hear what they say, but take it with a grain of salt, because the things change from day to day," Tedisco said. "It seems when the pressure gets there – we’re representatives, we’re there to listen to our constituents. They're not listening, I think, to a large number of their constituents and when it gets to the point where it's going to affect something like re-election, I think it'll have a bigger impact. And I think it's getting close to that point.”

The state legislative sessions runs until early June.