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Criminal Justice Reforms Show Cracks Among NY Democrats

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis

Among some top New York Democrats, there are some cracks in the support for criminal justice reforms in 2020 that have eliminated most forms of cash bail. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the state’s attorney general are among those now saying they are open to making some changes. 

There have been a few incidents in recent days of repeat offenders being released without bail under new laws that took effect in 2020. They include a three time convicted bank robber arrested and accused of a fourth bank robbery in an Albany suburb. He was released on his own recognizance on December 31, one day before the new laws were to take effect. In Rochester, a man who had served time in prison for shooting a police officer in 2009 and was again behind bars on new drug charges was released on January 2nd because the bail set for him was no longer applicable under the new law. 

State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy says the new law is an “epic failure” and he called on Governor Cuomo and Democratic legislative leaders to repeal it when they return to the Capitol for the session on Wednesday.  

“I mean, a fourth time bank robbery shouldn’t just run off into the street to rob another bank on another street,” Langworthy said. “This is just common sense.”  

There have also been several violent anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks, which led to a protest march of thousands of people in New York City on Sunday. Some have said the rise in hate crimes is a reason to reexamine the new laws.  

Cuomo, speaking at a luncheon held by the Association for a Better New York, a New York City business group, says he’s open to looking at some changes to the new laws. 

“There’s no doubt this is still a work in progress,” Cuomo said. “And there are other changes that have to be made.”  

The governor has proposed creating a new crime of domestic terrorism.  

But Cuomo says he continues to back the bail reforms, saying wealthy people accused of crimes have been free to go about their lives while awaiting trial, while the poor have had to languish in jail because they could not meet bail.  

“If you can’t make bail you sit in Rikers (Island jail) for two years, and get abused until you have your day in court,” said Cuomo. “And meanwhile, you’ve been in Rikers for two years and you haven’t been found guilty of anything.”  

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, in a conference call with criminal justice experts, agrees. He offers the case of former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose trial on rape charges began Monday, as an example. 

“Harvey Weinstein has been home for months,” said Gianaris, who said he’s read in the New York Post’s Page 6 column that Weinstein attended comedy clubs while free on bail.

“He’s been accused of horrible, horrible things,” Gianaris said. “And yet, all the people who are clamoring and complaining about the bail reform, I have not heard a peep from them about how an accused rapist has been sitting in the community while he’s waiting for his trial.” 

Democratic State Attorney General, Tish James, speaking in Rochester over the weekend, urged the legislature to revisit the bail reform law. She says they should consider a measure to increase judicial discretion, in cases of repeated offenders or when there’s reason to believe that someone accused of a crime could be dangerous if set free.   

“There’s been some individuals who have unfortunately have been released under the new bail reform and there has been some unintended consequences,” James said. “As a result of that, it’s critically important that the legislature take into consideration that safety should be the first priority.”    

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who has said in the fall she is open to tweaks in the new laws, said on WCBS-TV over the weekend that she was open to reexamining the laws, and is concerned about the recent spate of hate crimes.  

The GOP’s Langworthy says the democrats are backtracking because they fear public anger. 

“And they are beginning to fear for their political careers,” said Langworthy, who dismisses the Democrats words as “double talk.”   

Senator Gianaris says he thinks it’s too soon to make wholesale changes to the law, and would like to wait to accumulate some data on how the new laws are working in order to make an “educated judgment.”   

“This law has been in place for six days,” Gianaris said.

But he concedes that the “legislative process is dynamic” and does not rule out changes in 2020.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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