Some New York state lawmakers in the Hudson Valley are calling for changes to criminal justice reforms that took effect January 1. There is bipartisan support to pass legislation that would allow judges to consider how dangerous a defendant is when determining pre-trial detention.
The calls come following the implementation of bail reforms that eliminated cash bail for most nonviolent offenses. Democratic state Senator James Skoufis:
“If you could not afford to post bail, you got to wait for your trial in a jail cell somewhere. So there was this income threshold where if you were poor, you were treated one way; if you were rich, you were treated another way. And that needs to be, and that needed to be addressed,” Skoufis says. “However, it’s also our obligation to make sure that we prioritize public safety. And just a week into the new bail reforms, a week into the New Year, we have seen folks who are charged with what most would consider a violent crime, let out with no pre-trial detention, and then reoffend, recommit either the same or very similar type of crime.”
And so Skoufis of the 39th District is calling for a dangerousness standard.
“And it’s something I pushed for when we were negotiating the original bail reforms back in the spring. We need to have judges authorized to employ some discretion whereby if they find someone is dangerous to themselves or others, that they can put that defendant in pre-trial detention for the public safety,” says Skoufis. “And right now, they can’t do that. That is a critical amendment that needs to be advanced as soon as possible, quite frankly, immediately.”
Republican state Senator Sue Serino had introduced such legislation in the fall, with the support of domestic violence victim advocates and members of the law enforcement community. Serino continues to urge Albany’s legislative leaders to make her bill a top priority in 2020. Serino, of the 41st District, says the new bail reform policies were pushed through too quickly.
“I have to be really clear on this, though; no one should be held in jail because they can’t pay,” Serino says. “We all understand that. Everybody’s on the same page about it, but this bill went too far.”
Serino says Democrat Amy Paulin will sponsor the bill in the Assembly.
“I had the domestic violence advocates come to me, too, because they were really nervous about this, so they helped us with it,” says Serino.
“It’s hard enough for a victim, a survivor to come forward, right, and then you’re going to say, okay, now your abuser’s just going to get a piece of paper,” Serino says. “That’s really putting her or him in a very dangerous situation. So I really do believe that we should have judicial discretion because they do, a lot of times they even know the history of the person, which is really important as well.”
Skoufis says he will examine Serino’s bill and any other similar ones.
“And so I want to take a very specific look at those bills and make sure that we’re providing the discretion that is fully needed to judges to make sure that we keep dangerous offenders off the streets but, in essence, that is what I’m supporting, yes,” says Skoufis.
Republican state Assemblyman Colin Schmitt says the new reforms allowed an undocumented immigrant and unlicensed driver charged in a fatal hit-and-run accident in his 99th District to be released without bail. Subsequently, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers detained the man who was charged in the accident that killed a mother of three Christmas Eve as she was crossing a road in Stony Point, Rockland County. Schmitt says this illustrates the need to immediately repeal criminal justice changes. Meantime, Skoufis has introduced a bill to expand electronic monitoring.
“One of the concerns I have is that if there is no electronic monitoring and someone is at risk to flee, we have no way of tracking them down,” Skoufis says. “And so what my bill does is it expands ankle bracelets, similar types of electronic monitoring such that we can ensure a defendant is compelled to reappear in court and answer for the charges against them.”
Skoufis says this legislation will be carried by Queens Democrat Brian Barnwell in the Assembly. Then there’s the question of how to pay for some of the reforms.
“The state needs to step up and provide funding, not just for the electronic monitoring that we’re talking about, but for many of the additional costs for personnel, for other equipment that’s necessary to implement, fully implement these reforms,” Skoufis says. “And, quite frankly, it was a dereliction of the state’s duty to move forward with these reforms without any funding attached. I am optimistic that there’s going to be a very serious conversation, hopefully a proposal that crosses the finish line that does supply state funds to our local police departments and our counties to implement these changes.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has expressed a willingness to make changes to the bail reforms while state Attorney General Tish James, a fellow Democrat, has encouraged lawmakers to revisit judges’ discretion for dangerousness.