NYS Senate to Consider Possible Rollbacks to Criminal Justice Reforms

Feb 13, 2020

Credit wikimedia commons

Rachel May will be among the Democrats in the New York State Senate who will consider proposed changes to the recently enacted criminal justice reforms that have generated several weeks of heated debate. 


May says she’s not surprised by the backlash, especially considering the broad changes to bail, evidence, and judicial discretion.  At the same time, she says she’s willing to entertain amendments.

"That's what we always do.  When you have a big bill like this, it always gets amended in various ways.  When it comes down to implenting laws, the legal system can find loopholes and things don't ever work out entirely as intended."

But, May says she won’t budge on the reform that eliminated cash bail for a slew of offenses.   In fact, she says, she’d support a proposal that eliminates bail altogether because its discriminatory based on wealth.  May says the cases that have made the news are largely fearmongering, and not attributable to the reforms that took effect January first. 

"What they're not saying, previous to our reforms, the exact same thing would have happened if the person had the money to get out of jail."

May says she’s disappointed there’s been so much disinformation.

"A lot of the rhetoric is only focusing on who gets released and who doesn't.  There's also a situation where judges have been applying the law very strictly and maybe over-reacting themselves."

May says hasn’t yet seen the specific amendments being considered by a group of senators picked by the majority leader.  She says, as was the case before, they’re in conversations with law enforcement and prosecutors.  Any changes would still have to go through the assembly and ultimately the Governor.

PROPOSAL PROMPTS BACKLASH

A proposal in the State Senate to rollback part of the state’s recently enacted bail reforms produced an angry backlash from supporters of the law, which ended most forms of cash bail for non violent crimes in New York.

Assemblymember Latrice Walker speaks at a rally in the Capitol building. At right is Syracuse-area Assemblymember Pam Hunter.
Credit Karen DeWitt / WXXI News

The proposal by Senate Democrats, first reported by Newsday, would end all cash bail but let judges have more discretion over who should be released after an arrest. The judges would be allowed to take into consideration past criminal history and whether the person accused might be a flight risk.

Law enforcement groups and the state’s district attorneys have complained that the changes have led to some repeat offenders being released, and then going out and committing more crimes.

Senator James Gaughran, represents portions of Long Island, where the back lash to bail reform has been intense. He told public TV’s New York Now  that the proposal would address some perceived flaws in the law.

It clearly fixes many of the issues that some of us have been saying needs to be corrected,” Gaughran said.

Senator Jen Metzger, a Democrat from the Hudson Valley said in a statement that she also backs the changes. 

Gaughran says not all of the Democrats, though, endorse the idea.

News of the Senate proposal angered supporters of bail reform, who held a rally on the grand staircase outside the Senate chambers. Some compared the proposed rollback to the nation’s legacy of slavery, others said it was reminiscent of Jim Crow laws.

Assemblyman Walter Mosely condemned the proposal in stark terms, calling it “bull---- legislation”.

Sometimes you’ve got to be profane to be profound,” Mosely said. 

Mosely criticized Democratic Senators who back the proposal, saying “we can’t be bound by 5 or 6 members who call themselves Democrats but yet don’t act like Democrats”. And he urged progressive groups at the rally who helped Senate Democrats to come to power in 2018 to consider withholding support from Democrats who vote to rollback bail reform. 

Put the resources where democrats are going to support other democrats,” he yelled.  “And for those who don’t want act like Democrats, take their resources away from them.”

We will vote you out,” the crowd chanted.

Also at the rally was Assemblyman Joe Lentol, an influential member in the Democratic conference who has led the Codes Committee, which deals with criminal law,  since 1992.

It’s the best thing that we’ve done in my life time and my time in the New York state Assembly,” Lentol said, as the demonstrators cheered.  “And we’re going to stand tall and stand firm.”

Afterward, Lentol said the Senate’s proposal was offered in 2019 when lawmakers were negotiating the criminal justice reforms.

It isn’t anything new,” Lentol said. “The Assembly rejected it at the table, so why would we accept it now?”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, says it’s only been six weeks since the law was enacted, and he needs more hard data on how the state’s new bail reform laws are working before his house could even consider revisions.

You need real data, real information, not cherry-picked stories and sensationalized events to try to paint a picture as to whether the law is working or not,” Heastie said.

And Heastie says the Senate’s provision to give the judges more leeway could backfire.

Which could end up causing more people to be incarcerated pretrial,” Heastie said. “And before they have been convicted of a crime.”

The Speaker, who has worked closely with Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the past, says he was not given a heads up about the proposal, but says he’s “not surprised” by it.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Tish James have both said they are open to some revisions to the law.

The Speaker did not completely rule out  making some changes as part of the state budget, due at the end of March, if he were to have solid evidence by then that the law as not working as planned.