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New York to end most cash bail in 2020

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Beginning Jan. 1, some criminal justice law changes take effect in New York that have divided defendants' rights advocates and law enforcement groups.

New York will end cash bail for everyone accused of a nonviolent crime and adopt new rules in the pretrial discovery process. It will require prosecutors to turn over to defendants all of the evidence that they have against them within 15 days of arrest. 

Supporters say the current laws have meant that those accused of crimes and who can't make bail spend weeks, or even months, in jail without learning what evidence a prosecutor has against them until their trial begins. Many plead guilty to lesser charges without knowing if there is evidence that could exonerate them. 

The bills languished in the Legislature for years, but Democrats approved them in 2019 when they took over the Senate.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in an interview with public radio and TV in November that the changes are long overdue and will help fix a "broken system." 

She cited the case of Kalief Browder, who was 16 when he was accused of stealing a backpack. His family could not afford the few hundred dollars for bail, and he spent three years in jail at Rikers Island, at times in solitary confinement. His cause was picked up by celebrities like Jay Z, and he was eventually released.

But he did not recover from his ordeal. 

"He was so emotionally damaged that he committed suicide," Stewart-Cousins said. 

There's been backlash to the changes. Law enforcement groups have held press conferences, saying they need more funding to hire more staff and update antiquated computers so they can get evidence to defendants by the 15-day timeline.

Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said it's more than just giving defendants and their lawyers a stack of papers. He said police now have "massive amounts of video evidence." 

"We have body cams, we have dash cams, we have surveillance cameras, we have cameras in interview rooms. All of that stuff has to be viewed in real time," said Carney, who said sometimes a major incident can involve 10 police officers for several hours, all with body cameras.

"That's far too much data to even load onto a DVD that we can copy and share with the defense," he said. "It just can't be done."

Others, including the head of the state's Republican Party, Nick Langworthy, worry that ending bail will result in what they call a "catch-and-release" policy. Their concern is that dangerous criminals, or people with untreated mental health or substance abuse issues, could walk free.

"Most New Yorkers aren't going to know a damn thing about this until it becomes law on Jan. 1, when jail doors are opened, and the jails are emptying," Langworthy said on Dec. 9.  

He said the laws were changed "in the dead of night" during the state budget process and the public did not fully realize the implications.  

Supporters of the law, including Khalil Cumberbatch with the advocacy group New Yorkers United for Justice, said eliminating most forms of cash bail will actually make communities safer. 

"Most people who return to their community after exiting the criminal justice system will not actually go on to be threats to public safety," said Cumberbatch. "They are people who are family members, mothers, fathers."  

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who shepherded the bill through his chamber, said the reforms are meant to change a "racist and classist system." He said other states, including Republican-dominated Texas, have enacted similar reforms with no significant negative consequences. 

"Deep red states have made changes in criminal justice reform," Heastie said. "I understand the district attorneys and the sheriffs are resistant to change. But everywhere else that this has been done, it's been shown to be a more fair system and has not led to an increase in crime."  

Heastie said there are no plans to significantly change the new laws. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed the bills into law, also has not advocated any rollbacks. Stewart-Cousins said she's open to trying to find more funding for the district attorneys, but she said the changes are going to save money. 

"Holding people who are accused of nonviolent crimes or misdemeanors in county jails across the state costs billions of dollars," Stewart-Cousins said.  

And she said Senate Democrats are open to "tweaks" in the laws if necessary, once they have time to fully take effect.

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.