ALBANY — The opposition to New York’s recently enacted bail reforms is growing louder by the day, with Oswego County’s lawmakers rallying this week with fellow legislators and law enforcement officers to demand action on the controversial criminal justice measures.
Approved by the state Legislature in 2019 and put into effect Jan. 1 of this year, the bail reforms institute a new pretrial system where defendants facing most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies are now either released on their recognizance or must face non-monetary conditions of their release before their trial. Cash bail and pretrial detention has been largely eliminated for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, which supporters say will bring more equality to the justice system.
Proponents of the bail reforms also claim the new protocols will improve public safety, pointing to lower crime rates in states like New Jersey and Maryland where similar reforms have been enacted. The reforms were part of a multitude of bills passed by the Democrat-controlled state Assembly and Senate in 2019, the result of the breaking of a logjam of progressive policies held up by a generation of GOP Senate majorities.
“Right now, it seems when the sun doesn’t come up, everyone wants to blame the bail law,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-The Bronx, last week in response to the criticism. He called for more time to let the reforms take effect before judgment is passed.
Republicans remain, charitably, unconvinced.
“These laws were misrepresented by their supporters and the enormous shortcomings of the so-called ‘reforms’ are impossible to ignore,” Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, said. “These laws are allowing dangerous individuals to be arrested, get released and go right back to committing crimes, sometimes within hours.”
Several cases have emerged around New York of recidivism under the bail laws, which opponents have been quick to highlight in press releases, interviews and on social media. A man in Painted Post was charged in early January with criminal contempt and aggravated family offense for allegedly threatening an individual under an order of protection and released afterward. Police said the same man was charged again Feb. 1 with attempted burglary, menacing, endangering the welfare of a child and several other charges for allegedly trying to kick in a door and gain entry to a residence. Senate Democratic conference spokesman Mike Murphy said on Twitter the judge in the case didn’t “apply (the) law properly” and it was an “outrageous and dangerous” situation.
“We warned Democrats when we were debating (the reforms) and Democrats passed it anyway,” said State Sen. John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County. “Despite a widespread bipartisan backlash, Democrats refuse to listen to Republicans, law enforcement, prosecutors, victims or the public.”
New Yorkers United for Justice, an advocacy group formed in the wake of the justice reform package’s passage to support its implementation, is one of the loudest voices providing counterpoint to calls for returning to the pre-Jan. 1 status quo and the organization’s leaders say anecdotal cases of defendants re-offending while on pretrial release don’t erase the strong fundamentals of the reforms. New Yorkers United for Justice chief strategist Khalil Cumberbatch told The Palladium-Times on Wednesday he doubts opponents of bail reform have a feasible alternative to “going back to the old system” of a “two-tiered” court.
“If you had zero access to money, it didn’t matter if your bail was $1 million or $1,000 — you languished in jail at taxpayer expense,” said Cumberbatch. “If you had power, influence and money, you could go home no matter what your crime. How would we create a new system that levels the playing field but doesn’t wholeheartedly gut a reform that has taken years to develop with a ton of conversation with all stakeholders?”
The debate over bail reform has been drawn largely along geographic and cultural lines, with the NYC-based Heastie accusing opponents of stoking fear, telling the Albany Times-Union’s Cayla Harris this week the public “isn’t getting the full picture” and tales of dangerous defendants being sent back out on the streets to commit more crimes are “sensationalized.” Cumberbatch agreed with the speaker’s assessment, claiming that there is a socio-economic bias complicit in calls for re-engineering the laws.
“The opposition only has an issue with these reforms if it relates to people who are poor, who don’t have means and, frankly, who are people of color,” Cumberbatch said.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Barclay pushed back hard against that claim.
“There’s so much coverage and pressure on legislators that advocates are throwing anything out there they can, calling us racist or saying we’re going after poor people,” Barclay said. “I’m getting irritated that we only focus on the criminal, not the victim — it has nothing to do with race or being poor.”
As the chorus of voices on both sides of the debate continues to grow, Barclay said he was optimistic there would be movement on the issue (“We’re not saying we shouldn’t have any reform — I’m open to it — but let’s not do it in the dead of night during budget negotiations”) but didn’t speculate as to when debate might make it to the legislature floor.
“We’re going to keep beating the drum and there’s pressure on the speaker, majority leader and on the governor,” Barclay said. “The question is, ‘when?’ because this is a public safety crisis.”
State Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said the bail reforms were a “disaster.”
“The safety of law-abiding New Yorkers needs to come first — not the rights of criminals,” Ritchie said. “I am pleased to see such widespread support for rolling back these flawed laws and in the days to come, I will continue to advocate for their repeal.”