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Gov. Hochul's memo fails to ease tensions over bail reform laws

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Darren McGee/Darren McGee- Office of Governor
/
Gov. Hochul in Yonkers last week.

Tensions between Gov Kathy Hochul and the Legislature are intensifying over a proposal to change the state’s criminal justice laws, with the date for finalizing the state budget just over a week away.

A 10-point memo written by Hochul and her top aides that would make changes to the state’s bail reform, which was leaked to the media, has done nothing to ease agitation over the hot-button issue of rising crime rates.

The governor’s proposals reverse portions of the law that ended most forms of cash bail. They include giving judges the power to determine that a defendant is dangerous and order them to be incarcerated until their trial date. Many gun-related crimes, including those committed by juveniles, would again become eligible for bail.

Asked about the memo at a pandemic briefing Monday, Hochul defended her decision not to publicly release a plan to change the bail reform laws.

“I will not be negotiating the budget in public,” Hochul said.

The proposed changes have not silenced the governor’s political opponents, both Republicans and Democrats, who say she’s not doing enough to curb the crime wave.

State Senate GOP Minority Leader Robert Ortt wrote a letter to Hochul, asking for more transparency.

Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi, who will be challenging Hochul in a Democratic primary, held a news conference outside the governor’s New York City offices. He critiqued the leaked memo, saying it is “half-baked” and called on the governor to publicly release her proposals.

“How is that leadership?” Suozzi asked. “You’re the governor of New York state, you’re not going to discuss what your proposal is to address the biggest crisis we are facing right now?”

Meanwhile, progressive lawmakers who backed bail reform and other criminal justice changes are threatening to vote against the budget if it includes any rollbacks of the landmark 2019 laws. Assemblymember Latrice Walker says she’s considering holding a hunger strike.

“I am calling on my colleagues to reject this 10 point proposal,” Walker said, to cheers. “We do not want to see it in this budget or any other budget. We’re done.”

Before that rally, Hochul’s Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin met privately with progressive lawmakers to try to calm them. Benjamin exited the meeting through a side door to avoid reporters. He also declined to answer questions after a public appearance Tuesday, ducking into an elevator to avoid media cameras, including those from New York State Public Television’s “New York Now.”

“We’re not taking questions right now,” an aide said repeatedly as Benjamin walked in silence, changing directions twice before jumping in the elevator.

Legislative leaders have so far resisted making changes to the laws, saying they need more time to work and more data before any decisions can be made.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said he’s willing to talk about potential changes to the laws, but he says it’s too easy to make the laws a scapegoat when crime is rising all over the nation, including in states that have not recently changed their bail laws.

“There’s a bigger issue, which is the pandemic,” Heastie said. “If you look around the country, you’ll see there’s a rise in crime.”

Meanwhile, New York University’s Brennan Center released a report Tuesday
that finds no connection can be established between the reforms and the rising crime rate in New York City, saying the “data does not currently support further revisions to the legislation.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.