New York state lawmakers were finishing up the state budget Thursday, two days after the deadline. One area of contention was making changes to the state’s bail reform laws.
In the end, they compromised.
On Jan. 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 crime was on the rise as a result.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and some Democrats in the Senate sought to empower judges to hold more defendants before trial 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 eligible for bail again. They include second-degree burglary, promoting child pornography, and vehicular manslaughter, a crime associated with drunken driving fatalities.
Cuomo, speaking at his daily briefing on Thursday, said it was a necessary refinement of the bail laws.
“The bail reform that we did last year, I’m very proud of,” Cuomo said. “And I think we made the right change now.”
Supporters of bail reform are split on the new law.
The advocacy group VOCAL-NY called it a “significant step backward.” The group’s Nick Encalada- Malinowski said it will “likely lead to increases in the jail populations across the state” at a time where 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,” he said.
Other bail reform backers, including New Yorkers United for Justice, said they're relieved that the provision to give judges more power to incarcerate defendants was dropped, and that what they called their opponents’ “campaign of lies and fear” did not succeed. The group’s Khalil Cumberbatch said in a statement that the “heart” of the bail reform laws has been preserved.
Law enforcement groups also have mixed reactions to the changes. A spokesman for the New York State Sheriffs' Association, Peter Kehoe, said 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 ability to consider the defendant’s dangerousness in making a bail decision.”
Kehoe said 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, Sen. George Borrello, a Republican who supported the bail reform rollbacks, also said 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 Jan. 1.
The current law said 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.