Republican state lawmakers will be holding roundtable forums around the state to discuss the fallout from the state’s newly enacted criminal justice reforms. Most forms of cash bail for nonviolent crimes ended on January 1st.
The changes to the bail system have led to a backlash among police and prosecutors, who cite examples of defendants with multiple criminal convictions being freed on their own recognizance.
Republican state lawmakers have highlighted the issue, saying it’s an example of overreach by the all Democratic state legislature.
Senate GOP Minority Leader John Flanagan, in an interview with public radio and television, says the new laws are “bad public policy” and have been very poorly implemented. He says they should be repealed, or there should be a moratorium.
“This is the number one issue, it’s not even close,” Flanagan said. “This is what people are talking about.”
Republican Senators will hold roundtable discussions on bail reform in Buffalo, Long Island, and Syracuse in the coming weeks, which are also areas where they hope to regain or hold on to GOP seats.
Flanagan says he disagrees with the premise that the crimes that no longer require bail are nonviolent. He says those crimes include second degree manslaughter, a sexual act involving a child and vehicular assault.
He gives the example of a Bellport, Long Island, man with a history of drunk driving who was again charged with DWI after a Jan. 12 crash that killed a 27-year-old man.
The man had been arrested on Jan. 1 after being accused of interfering with an ignition interlock device, but he wasn’t required to post bail.
"Someone is dead as a result of the change in this law," said Flanagan.
Reporting by Newsday later determined that the judge and prosecutor erred in the case, and that the new bail reform laws did not require the release of the man.
Supporters of bail reform say wealthy people accused of crimes, even violent crimes, have always been able to pay their bail and remain free until their trial. They cite the example of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of rape, who was free after meeting bail until his trial began.
Flanagan says he agrees that there should not be two different standards for the rich and the poor and that the law should be applied equally.
Even some Democrats are having second thoughts.
Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Tish James have said some tweaks need to be made to the law.
Assembly Democrats say they are not ready to make any changes until the law has been given some time to work.
Senate Democrats are split on the issue.
Senator Monica Martinez, from Long Island, says she won’t vote for the state budget unless it includes changes to the bail reform laws. She’s introduced a bill that would give judges more discretion on whether to hold a defendant before trial.
The Senate Democrats held a private meeting recently with police chiefs, including Patrick Phelan, the president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, and chief of police for the town of Greece in Monroe County.
Phelan says the senators asked for the meeting, and they listened to the chiefs.
“They were very receptive to hearing out concerns,” Phelan told WXXI , in an interview.
He said the meeting lasted around 90 minutes. "It was a good conversation.”
Phelan says police chiefs also want judges to be given more discretion. He also has concerns over related changes to the state’s discovery laws, that now require prosecutors to turn over to defendants all of the evidence collected against them within 15 days.
Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is a supporter of the criminal justice reforms, says Democrats also talked to law enforcement last spring when they approved the criminal justice changes as part of the budget. She also says there was a good reason to make those changes in the first place.
“The way the system had been before we did anything was extremely unfair,” said Stewart-Cousins. “It criminalized poverty.”
Stewart-Cousins, who has said some opponents of bail reform are engaging in “fear mongering”, says she just wants to “cut through the noise” and make sure the law is accomplishing what it was supposed to achieve.
“We want to get it right,” she said.