New rules regarding who can be held on bail in New York state took effect Thursday.
The new law rolls back some bail reform measures passed in 2019, and criminal justice advocates say it’s the wrong time to do it, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Last year, the newly elected Democratic-led state Senate and Assembly eliminated all forms of cash bail for nonviolent crimes. They also changed what’s known as the state’s discovery laws and required prosecutors to turn over to defendants all evidence against them within 15 days of arrest.
In the past, many defendants in Black and Brown communities waited months or even years in pretrial detention without knowing the details of the case against them or whether there was evidence that could exonerate them.
Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is African American, said in a November 2019 interview with public radio and television that it was long overdue.
“This is something that’s been needed to be fixed for such a long time,” Stewart-Cousins said.
But late in 2019, as the new rules were set to take effect, there was a backlash from law enforcement. They said it went too far and would result in a crime spike as repeat offenders were released back into the community.
Prosecutors said they were not equipped to turn over all of the evidence in a two-week window. Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said last December that he lacked staff and adequate computers to process the material, which can often include hours of video from police body cameras.
“That is far too much data to even load onto a DVD,” Carney said.
In January, law enforcement groups publicized a few incidents where repeat offenders were released on their own recognizance.
During budget negotiations in March, Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed to roll back some of the reforms. They made several crimes once again eligible for bail, including second-degree burglary, promoting child pornography and vehicular manslaughter, a crime associated with drunken-driving fatalities. They also gave prosecutors more time, up to 35 days, to turn over evidence to defendants.
Cuomo said that while he was proud of the original bail reform laws, they needed some tweaks.
“The bail reform that we did last year, I’m very proud of,” Cuomo said on April 2. “And I think the improvements we made this year are the right ones, also.”
Those changes are now taking effect, and advocates say it is the worst time for the rollback.
Marvin Mayfield, a prisoners rights advocate with the group Center for Community Alternatives, spent 11 months on Rikers Island in pretrial detention without knowing the details of the case against him. He eventually agreed to a plea bargain, even though he says he did not commit the crime. Mayfield said the rollback is happening as COVID-19 presents a threat to inmates in jails that are ill-equipped for social distancing, and the country is in the midst of a new civil rights movement after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others after encounters with police.
“It’s shameful to reverse these gains, especially in the midst of a pandemic and during a national uprising in the defense of Black lives,” Mayfield said.
Rodney Holcombe with the reform group fwd.us said the campaign against bail reform was fueled by “racism, fear and lies” and will lead to more incarceration.
“Which means thousands more legally innocent, mostly Black and Latinx people will be jailed,” Holcombe said.
The governor and legislative leaders did not immediately return a request for comment.