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Hochul under increased pressure to revise bail reform laws

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Mike Groll
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Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams, via video link, discuss the problem of gun violence at an interstate meeting in East Greenbush, New York, on Jan. 26, 2022. Behind Hochul is Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is facing increasing pressure to revisit changes made to the state’s bail laws.

In her own party, Hochul is caught between New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who wants changes, and the state’s legislative leaders, who say it’s too soon to judge whether the law is working and fear it’s being used as a scapegoat for rising crime rates.

Adams wants the Legislature to alter the law that went into effect in January 2020 that ended most forms of cash bail. He said it would allow judges more discretion to consider the “dangerousness” of a defendant when deciding whether they should be detained in jail before their case is heard in court.

Adams, a former police captain who took office Jan. 1, intensified his call for the changes after two New York City police officers were shot and killed earlier this month after answering a domestic violence call. He appeared, remotely, during a news conference that Hochul called before an interstate meeting to combat gun violence.

“We have become an ocean of violence,” Adams said.

In addition to the Democratic mayor, state Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks, and New York’s Republican state and federal lawmakers have said the bail laws need to be changed.

GOP state Sen. Tom O’Mara, who spoke at the State Capitol on Jan. 24, would like to repeal the reforms.

“For the past three years, the (Democratic) majorities of this Legislature and the governor have done nothing but lessen criminal penalties, eliminating cash bail,” O’Mara said. “Sending a message to criminals that you’re going to get a slap on the wrist.”

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Karen DeWitt
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New York State Public Radio
Republican state senators speak about their agenda for improving the state, including repealing the state's bail reform laws, on Jan. 24, 2022. At the podium is Sen. Tom O'Mara, R- Elmira.

Hochul has not called for bail reform changes. She didn't mention the issue in her State of the State message or budget proposal, though she did acknowledge that New Yorkers are increasingly worried about rising crime rates.

The governor, answering a question from reporters at the anti-gun violence event, said she’s willing to discuss the idea. But she said her harshest critics are just playing politics.

“If reforms are needed, based on data that is still being gathered, I’m willing to have those conversations,” said Hochul, who added the GOP are highlighting the issue for “political reasons”

“I don’t cave to pressure,” the governor said. “I do what’s right based on all the facts that come before me.”

Hochul, who said she values having a good relationship with Adams, would have to get the Legislature to agree to make changes to the bail reform laws.

But so far, the leaders of the Legislature are not ready to do that.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who are both African-American, say there’s plenty of evidence that shows Black and brown people are treated differently than white people in the criminal justice system, and often became victims of the previous bail laws.

Stewart-Cousins said calling for bail reform changes has become a simplistic “repetitive mantra” that does not look at the larger issues behind crime.

“It’s unfortunate that people have found that this is a very easy way to demonize one side and not do much work,” she said.

Stewart-Cousins said society can no longer incarcerate its way out of its problems.

Heastie said allowing judges more discretion could also mean they might bring preconceived notions with them when deciding whether to grant bail. He said bail reform is being blamed for problems like increasing gun violence. But he said they’re not related.

“If that’s the case, then why are we having gun problems all over this country?” said Heastie, who added the COVID-19 pandemic has caused people’s mental health to suffer, along with increased poverty and unemployment.

“There’s a whole lot of things that are going on,” he said. “It’s just so easy to scapegoat it onto bail.”

Both Heastie and Stewart-Cousins say preliminary data is inclusive. A study from the state Office of Court Administration indicates that since the law took effect, 2% of defendants who were released without bail committed serious crimes while waiting for their court proceedings. But they say there are no comparable numbers for before the law was changed.

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.