Sweeping reforms that will end cash bail for all misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges in New York state take effect in January. But some law enforcement groups are objecting, saying the changes go too far and could jeopardize public safety.
The new law still allows cash bail to be set in the cases of those accused of violent crimes. It is expected to significantly reduce the number of pretrial prisoners in the state’s jail system.
Supporters say the bail system was racially biased and disproportionately harmed low-income people of color, who might be less able than wealthier citizens to meet bail and remain free until their trial.
But district attorneys, county sheriffs, domestic violence victim advocates and some Republican state lawmakers say the new law goes too far and needs revisions before it takes effect.
State Sen. Sue Serino from the Hudson Valley offered a measure to give judges more discretion to determine whether a defendant is potentially “dangerous” before waiving bail. She said oftentimes, if the defendant is a repeat offender, the judges are best equipped to decide whether bail is appropriate or not.
“They know the histories,” Serino said. “They are the best ones to make this judgment call.”
Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a Republican from Elma and a former state trooper and Erie County sheriff, said the bail changes will affect public safety.
“The repeat drunk driver is free to go back out and drive drunk again,” Gallivan said. “A person who is inclined to violence, but not quite violence with a gun or knife, that might want revenge on people, they will continue to go out there.”
Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond, an officer with the New York State Sheriffs' Association, said the elimination of bail for nonviolent drug offenses might make it harder to curb the illegal drug trade.
“Is it rational to think that a person who is caught with thousands of bags of heroin will show up to court once released?” DuMond asked. “And face a 15- to 25-year prison sentence?”
A second proposed change to the bail reform laws would ensure that people accused of domestic violence and sex-related crimes continue to qualify for bail and pretrial detention.
Leah Feldman is with the domestic violence victims advocacy group Community Programs at Family Services in Poughkeepsie. She said domestic violence is a pattern of power and control, which escalates over time.
“The pretrial phase, the time between an offender’s arrest and sentencing, is known to be the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence,” Feldman said. “This is a time that a victim is most likely to be killed.”
She said victims also have breathing room to seek help and protection while their alleged abuser is in jail before a trial.
Advocates of the bail reform law say the senators and law enforcement officers are missing the point. Amy Jones with the reform group Citizen Action stood outside the news conference with a small number of protesters.
Jones said under the old bail laws, richer, privileged and usually white people could afford to meet bail, while lower-income black and brown people could not.
“They're poor people,” said Jones, who linked the state Senate Republicans to Republican President Donald Trump. “This is Trump-style rhetoric.”
Jones said revisions to the bail reform law won’t keep communities safer.
“What’s going to keep our communities safer is having people home with their families, still employed, still in their housing, still being the fabric of this society,” Jones said.
Trump weighed in on the changes to the state’s bail laws in a tweet on Tuesday, saying Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio "are letting out 900 criminals, some hardened and bad, onto the sidewalks of our rapidly declining" city.
Cuomo answered that similar bail reforms are already in place in a neighboring state and were signed into law by its former Republican governor.
“Essentially the same bill was passed by New Jersey several years ago, signed by the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie,” said Cuomo.
Christie served for a time as the director of Trump’s 2016 transitional team.
Cuomo said New Jersey has had no problems with the law.
“It has worked very well,” Cuomo said.
Republicans are in the minority in the state Senate and their proposed revisions would need backing from Democrats.
A spokesman for the majority party Senate Democrats accused the GOP senators and their supporters of relying on “alternate facts.” Spokesman Mike Murphy also made a link to Trump, saying the Republican senators are engaging in “Trump’s playbook of lies and fear-mongering.” He also said the proposals have already been rejected by most New Yorkers.