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Governor may use budget to try and revise NY's bail reform laws

Gov. Kathy Hochul, wearing a navy blue dress in front of the American flag, while she stands at a podium with the state seal on it.
Office of the Governor
Gov. Kathy Hochul is reported to be pushing for changes to New York’s controversial bail reform laws.

Gov. Kathy Hochul is raising the stakes in the state’s budget, due at the end of the month. She’s reported to be pushing for changes to New York’s controversial bail reform laws, even though legislative leaders have said they are not yet ready to alter the laws.

Hochul included policies in her budget proposal that are not directly related to spending, including a plan to make permanent take out alcoholic beverages at restaurants, and a restructuring of the state’s troubled ethics commission.

Legislative leaders, who are in Hochul's Democratic party, did not include any of those ideas in their budget proposals. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said at the time that the decision by Assembly members in his party conference was not a shot at the governor.

“I’m not trying to send Gov. Hochul a message, I’m just relaying the feelings and sentiments of the conference,” Heastie said on March 14. “They just want to put forward a fiscal document.”

But with the leak of a memo from the governor’s office, first reported in the New York Post, that would make major changes to the state’s 2019 bail reform laws which ended most forms of cash bail, there’s heightened tensions between the legislature and governor.

According to the paper, Hochul is proposing that judges be allowed to hold defendants who are considered dangerous without bail before they face trial. Some allegations, including for gun-related crimes, would once again become eligible for bail, meaning judges could set a cash payment in order for someone to be freed before their trial occurs. And, if someone is released without bail after being accused of a crime and is arrested for a second offense, then they would have to post bail to avoid being incarcerated until their trial date.

Hochul has come under fire from political opponents in the 2022 governor’s race, both Democrats and Republicans, who blame New York’s rising crime rates on the reforms. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, has also called for changes.

Speaking before the memo was leaked, Hochul said that non-budgetary policy changes would end up in the final spending plan.

“Yes we’ll have policy in the budget,” Hochul said, noting last year’s budget contained 10 non-spending related items. “There is precedent.”

Governors have more leverage during the budget process to get unrelated legislation approved than they do in the rest of the session.

But Speaker Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins were champions of bail reform. Both leaders are African American, and they cited data that showed Black New Yorkers were adversely impacted by the old laws, and were more frequently held in pre-trial incarceration than wealthier white suspects who could afford to post bail.

Stewart-Cousins says opponents of bail reform are using the laws as a scapegoat, when other preventative measures like better community outreach and gun control would do more to combat crime.

“The kind of orchestrated message that somehow this is wrong not true,” Stewart-Cousins said. She said the Senate wants to invest in mental health services and anti-gun trafficking measures.

“We will continue to work on these issues, because we want New York to be the safest city in the country as well,” she said.

The governor’s proposals were condemned by criminal justice advocates. In a statement, the coalition New Yorkers United for Justice said, “The plan’s proposals are neither evidence-based, nor likely to reduce crime or recidivism.”

A spokeswoman for the governor, Hazel Crampton- Hays, neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the proposal, saying the governor has said “consistently” that she does not negotiate in public.

The governor conceded earlier this week though that one of her priority proposals might not make it into the budget. She said that alcohol-to-go, which is opposed by the state’s liquor distributors, may have to wait until later in the legislative session.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.