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State's bail reform laws are attracting controversy in the New York governor's race

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U.S. Attorney's Office of Western NY
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provided federal complaint
A photo included in the federal complaint filed Saturday shows David Jakubonis with the keychain device with two sharp points that authorities have talked about.

Public safety issues are dominating the governor’s race in New York in recent days, as Republican candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin calls for repealing the state’s bail reform laws, and Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul tells police chiefs that she supports more funding for law enforcement.

It’s been a week since Zeldin thwarted a potential attacker while at a campaign event near Rochester.

The accused man, David Jakubonis, like Zeldin, is a war veteran. Jakubonis also struggles with alcohol addiction and mental health issues, his lawyer has said.

Jakubonis approached Zeldin during his speech, wielding a plastic pointed defense keychain. He grabbed Zeldin’s arm and pulled him over before aides wrestled him to the ground.

Jakubonis later said he mistakenly believed that Zeldin was making a speech disrespecting veterans.

The Monroe County District Attorney’s Office charged Jakubonis with attempted second-degree assault, a crime that under the state’s 2019 bail reform laws is no longer eligible for bail. He was subsequently released.

Zeldin, who has made his opposition to bail reform a cornerstone of his campaign, said the incident is a prime example of why the laws need to be repealed.

“He was charged with a violent felony,” Zeldin said. “And he was released back out onto the streets.”

Complicating the story: Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley, whose office sought the charges, is a Republican and an ally of Zeldin’s. She attended the rally and was listed on his campaign website as a co-chair, though she said she declined the offer to be involved with the campaign months ago after realizing it would be a conflict of interest.

Federal authorities later charged Jakubonis with the crime of attacking a member of Congress with a dangerous weapon. He remains in custody after a hearing on Thursday.

Zeldin’s campaign released an ad highlighting the incident.

On Thursday, Zeldin offered another reason why his alleged attempted attacker should have faced bail. He said if Jakubonis had been held longer instead of being released a few hours after his arrest, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office could have referred him to social services.

“And say, ‘Hey, listen, on the way in to your office, can you come by this location, this veteran is here and I’d like him to be able to speak with you because we need to get him some help,” Zeldin said.

Zeldin has found an ally in New York City Mayor Eric Adams. The Democratic mayor on Tuesday called for a special session of the Legislature to repeal some of the bail reform laws. He said the “catch and release” approach to repeat offenders, who sometimes commit violent acts after being set free without bail, is harming public safety efforts and needs to stop.

“Albany should consider coming and revisiting some of the violence we are seeing of repeated offenders,” said Adams. “We’re not talking about someone that steals an apple. We’re talking about someone that has repeatedly used violence in our city, robberies, grand larcenies, burglaries, shootings, carrying a gun.”

The proposal was immediately rejected by the state’s Democratic legislative leaders, who said there’s no need for a special session.

The available data has so far not directly linked changes in the state’s bail laws to the increase in crime.

Hochul, who is seeking election to a full term, and is considered the front-runner in the race, successfully sought some changes to bail reform in the state budget. The revisions made more crimes once again eligible for bail.

Hochul said she wants to see the effects before taking any new action.

“Our changes now cover repeat offenders,” said Hochul, who added gun-related crimes and hate crimes are once again eligible for bail, and judges were given more discretion on whether to set bail.

Hochul said the changes also closed a loophole that resulted in cases being dismissed due to technicalities, like some missing information.

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New York NOW
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WMHT
NY Governor Kathy Hochul

Hochul said she’s not going to call a special session because there is no consensus among Democrats on further rescinding bail reform laws.

Hochul, a moderate Democrat who has a good relationship with the progressive wing of her party, reached out to law enforcement groups that have been against bail reform. In a speech before the state’s police chiefs at their annual meeting, Hochul pledged to give police more of a voice in the future in setting the state’s crime policy.

“I believe that there has been a shortcoming for years in terms of making sure that the voices of law enforcement are there when we're talking about policies that affect what you do every day,” Hochul said. “You have an important perspective that needs to be heard and needs to be shared.”

Referring to a slogan popular during the 2020 anti-police violence protests, Hochul told the groups that “no one will ever say the words ‘defund the police’” in her presence. She said she increased funding for law enforcement in the state budget.

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.