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NYS Budget Includes Bail Reform Changes

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis

New York state lawmakers finished up the state budget Friday morning, three days after the deadline. One area of contention was making changes to the state’s bail reform laws. In the end, lawmakers compromised.

On January 1, New York eliminated most forms of cash bail for nonviolent crimes. There was a backlash, as prosecutors and police said too many repeat offenders were being let back out onto the streets, and that as a result crime was on the rise.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and some fellow Democrats in the Senate sought to empower judges to hold more defendants pretrial if the judge believed the accused might present a danger to society. Pro-bail reform advocates objected, saying too many judges would unnecessarily send people to jail, defeating the purpose of the bail reforms.

In the end Cuomo and the Legislature dropped that provision, but they added a number of new crimes that will be re-eligible for bail. They include burglary in the second degree, promoting child pornography, and vehicular manslaughter, a crime associated with drunk-driving fatalities.

Cuomo, speaking at his daily briefing on Thursday, says it was a necessary refinement of the bail laws.

“The bail reform that we did last year I’m very proud of because it was discriminatory in effect and in impact,” Cuomo said. “And I think we made the right change now and I think the improvements we made this year are the right ones also." 

Supporters of bail reform are split on the new law. The advocacy group VOCAL-NY called it a “significant step backwards.” The group’s Nick Encalada-Malinowski says it will “likely lead to increases in the jail populations across the state” at a time when inmates are in danger of contracting the coronavirus. 

“We are the only state in the country that in the middle of this public health crisis have decided to increase the number of people who are incarcerated in jails and later on prisons,” he said. 

Other bail reform backers, including New Yorkers United for Justice, say they are relieved that the provision to give judges more power to incarcerate defendants was dropped, and what they say is their opponents’ “campaign of lies and fear” did not succeed. The group’s Khalil Cumberbatch says in a statement that the “heart” of the bail reform laws has been preserved.

Law enforcement groups also have a mixed reaction to the changes. A spokesman for the New York State Sheriff’s Association, Peter Kehoe, says while it’s good that some crimes were added back to the bail eligibility list, the group is disappointed that the new law leaves out a “judge's the ability to consider the defendant’s dangerousness in making a bail decision." He says the sheriffs and the chiefs of police wanted the Legislature to wait and not act on bail reform during a pandemic, so they could have more careful consideration of the issue.

On the Senate floor, Senator George Borrello, a Republican who supported the bail reform rollbacks, also says the changes don’t go far enough.

“You cut open a gushing wound in our judicial system that has impacted victims of crime and the people on the front lines of law enforcement,” Borrello said. “And you’ve handed them a band-aid now to try and fix it. It’s simply not enough.”   

The budget also eases up on discovery law changes that also took effect January 1. The current law says prosecutors must turn over to defendants all evidence they have against them within 15 days of arrest. The new law will give prosecutors 20 to 35 days for more serious crimes. It also provides $40 million to help district attorneys and others to modernize their computer systems and hire staff to be able to meet those requirements.

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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